by Eric Rasmussen
The first few cars in the ditch don’t bother me; it’s easy to dismiss such accidents as the fault of distracted or overly-aggressive drivers. But then we pass an SUV flipped on its side in the median. A couple miles after that a semi jackknifed in the ditch emerges from the blowing snow. By the time we reach the upside-down pickup truck halfway down the hill off the side of the freeway, I turn to Lana in the driver’s seat.
“Should we be driving in this weather?” I ask.
“I told you to shut the hell up.”
Lana and I only met two days ago, the morning St. Paul Delivery Express hired me and assigned her as my mentor. She takes her job seriously, and I don’t have any reason to doubt her driving abilities, except for one thing: she’s missing an eye. The whole right side of her face is deformed, with dark spots of skin bunched into ridges and a smooth stretch where her eye should be. I respect her immensely for the challenges she must face, the stares, the questions, how women are judged by their appearances. But at the moment, the realities of depth perception persuade me to rephrase my question.
“Should you be driving in this weather?”
Lana breaks her eye contact with road. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she says, and at that second the tires of our delivery van lose their bond with the ice-covered concrete. The rear end swings to the right, then arcs around to the left, which pulls the front end backwards, and suddenly we’re spinning like a carousel while hurtling down the freeway. Instead of looking out the windshield I grab my door handle and watch Lana’s face, which doesn’t seem to register what’s happening. She stares like a brain surgeon attacking a tumor and we’re probably going to die but all I can think about is how she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
* * *
Our pirouette down the interstate seems like it would be a good candidate for the scariest moment of my life, but that had already happened, three weeks earlier, when I defended my thesis in front of the worst possible committee in the entire American Studies department. Dr. Bertrang, Dr. Muzynoski, and Dr. Good. I entered the conference room wearing the brown corduroy suit coat I had borrowed from my dad and carrying my greatest achievement stuffed into fresh plastic page protectors. “Yeah Yeah, Hey Hey: Paradigms for Interjection Use in Late 20th Century Popular Music.” Dr. Good started tearing the paper to pieces before I even sat down.
“Do you honestly believe,” he said, “that The Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ is a relevant cultural artifact for this sort of study?”
“Absolutely.” My advisor had told me to anticipate the question. “The Beatles were the most influential artists of the twentieth…”
“Which makes them a painfully obvious choice,” interrupted Dr. Bertrang. “And I find it concerning that I need to point out that The Beatles are British.” She sat in the middle and looked from Dr. Good to Dr. Muzynoski with her eyebrows raised. “If I’m not mistaken, this is an American Studies department.”
My tie was too tight, but Dad had tied it for me and I didn’t want to mess it up. “‘She Loves You’ is only one of two dozen artifacts in the paper. What I’d like to talk about is the ‘Hey’ that opens the refrain of Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box.’”
“Of course you would.” Dr. Muzynoski rolled his eyes. “Of course you would.”
It all went downhill from there.
As I walked across the quad after they told me that I had failed, the past four years’ worth of study and work and loans disappeared like an echo off of a distant building. I would not be the country’s leading expert on the use of the words “hey” and “yeah” in popular music. Universities would not be calling me with offers to teach their students. My one truly original idea wouldn’t yield any awards or accolades, degrees, or prestige.
“You better bring the suit back as soon as you’re done,” Dad had said that morning before I left. “If you stain it, you’re buying me a new one.”
Back home, I hung the pants, jacket, and tie in Dad’s closet. Then I sat on my bed in the basement and waited for a new idea. I was still waiting a couple weeks later as I filled out an application and sat for an interview at St. Paul Delivery Express, and I’m still waiting as our van comes a stop, front wheels buried in a snowbank, and Lana turns to me and says, “Good work, jackass.”
* * *
The tow-truck driver is in the middle of the busiest day of his life, but he sure doesn’t show it. After backing his rig up to the rear of the van, he meets us on the shoulder.
“Who ordered all this snow?” he asks. The precipitation has let up some, and to the west we can see the blue sky beyond the edge of the clouds. “What happened? Going too fast?”
“Looks like it,” I say with a big smile and nod. Our lives are in his rough, grease-stained hands.
The guy squats to see under our vehicle. “This isn’t so bad. I’ll get you hooked up and pull you back to Baldwin.” When he stands he glances at Lana’s eye with quick snaps of his head, like he’s trying to look at the sun. She hovers off to the side in her navy St. Paul Delivery Express jacket and baseball cap with her hair arranged to cover the right side of her face, and I wonder, does that help deflect some of the attention she must always receive?
“Nope,” she says. “If the van runs, we’re leaving from here.”
The tow truck driver squints. “But the roads won’t be clear for a couple hours.”
“We have an important delivery to make in Madison. We don’t have a second to spare.”
Another text had arrived on the company phone while we waited for the tow truck. Please hurry. It’s life or death. I texted back, We’re going as fast as we can, I promise. The cavernous back of the van holds only one small package, about the size of a shoebox. Medication, as far as we can tell from the jargon printed on the side. Someone’s having a health crisis, and we’re the only ones who can help. Lana explains all this to the tow truck driver.
“Must be some pretty special medicine,” he says.
The guy sets his hook and yanks the handle for the winch, which whines as it jerks the vehicle backwards. A loud crack attracts our attention to the front of the van. What’s left of the bumper remains in the snowbank.
Within three minutes Lana’s back behind the wheel and I’m back in the passenger seat and the guy waits in his tow truck until we pull away. Our wheels spin and the rear end fishtails as we accelerate, and this time when I glance at Lana I find she’s already looking at me.
“Sometimes people who’ve been through traumatic events together form a special bond,” I say.
She tilts her head. “That wasn’t traumatic. People slide into the ditch all the time.”
“Do you like this job?” I ask.
“I’ve had worse,” she says, returning her gaze to the road.
“Before this, I was studying to be an expert in 20th century pop music.”
Her shoulders flex as if this surprises her. “I’m in a band myself.”
“Punk, I bet.”
“Why would you assume that?” She checks the speedometer and lets the van slow.“Garage punk, actually.” A pickup truck passes us in a cloud of fog and snow. “What do you play?”
“I’m actually not musical. I studied language use in the songs. Lyrics.”
“It’s really intriguing.” My brain scrambles to come up with a fascinating tidbit. “For example, did you know the ratio of ‘yeahs’ in a song’s refrain compared to the verses is an accurate predictor of how many weeks the song spent in the top forty?” I laugh, because it really is an unbelievable fact. “Given songs that make it into the top forty, of course.”
Lana’s holding the steering wheel so hard that her knuckles turn white. “Is it okay if we don’t talk? I need to concentrate.”
“I don’t mind at all.” This isn’t accurate, because I want to impress her, which will never happen if I can’t keep talking. But I respect her request and stay quiet.
The company phone doesn’t, however. The customer won’t stop texting us. I muffle the buzzing and discretely check the messages, but Lana still notices. Each time a new alert arrives she goes a few miles per hour faster, and I try to stay even quieter. I don’t move a muscle. I barely even breathe.
* * *
Two miles outside of Tomah the roads turn mostly clear. Traffic speeds up again. Lana’s back to weaving between semis and passing cars on the right, which must mean it’s okay for me to talk.
“How many people have you trained?” I ask.
“Are you still friends with any of them?”
She makes a noise that’s half scoff, half laugh. “You’re very awkward. You know that, right?”
Of course I know that. I’m not an idiot.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” she says. “But we’re just co-workers. In a couple weeks we’ll never see each other again.”
“We could be friends.”
“Why? You don’t know me, I don’t know you.”
I shrug. “It’s just a feeling. You’re someone I could connect with.”
“Are you attracted to me?”
“I’m not not attracted to you.”
“Is this your weirdo way of hitting on me?”
The answer is “kind of,” but there’s no way I’m going to say it. Instead I notice that I’m once again picking at the skin around my fingernails. It’s a habit I’ve promised to quit thousands of times.
“Can I give you a piece of advice?” She slips in front of a Subaru before we get stuck behind a dump truck. “You have to be confident. That’s what people respond to most.”
Of course I’ve heard that suggestion before, hundreds of times. From teachers. From Dad. Dr. Bertrang said the exact same thing at the end of my thesis presentation. “Parts of this are well done, Isaac. What’s missing is some confidence in your work.” Dr. Good and Dr. Muzynoski nodded on either side of her like they hadn’t been looking forward to failing me ever since I entered the program. My reaction was the same as every other time people had talked to me about confidence: I sighed, and nodded, and agreed.
But this time is different; adrenaline pulses into my bloodstream. “What does that even mean?” My muscles feel jittery all of a sudden, and I turn towards the passenger window so Lana can’t see my bottom lip quiver.
She pauses, and for a moment it seems like she’s about to offer some actual worthwhile advice. But instead she shrugs. “You just have to figure it out. I don’t know.”
In front of us on the freeway is a Frito-Lay truck, and Lana waits until we’re only a few yards behind it before she swerves into the left lane. To distract myself I picture the inside of the trailer. Is the whole thing packed with chips, floor to ceiling? That would be a lot of chips. And because I’m picturing such cargo while trying to decide if Lana’s advice means I should keep talking or give up, I don’t perceive the change in the light. It’s only a hint of flashing red and blue, barely discernible in the shimmer of bright-white snow. But Lana notices.
“Stupid bullshit motherfucker,” she shouts, and this time, instead of referring to me, she’s talking about the state trooper racing up behind us. She presses the brake, fades back behind the Frito-Lay truck, and settles onto the shoulder next to the snowbank that, after the storm, sits even with my window. I should be nervous, about making it to Madison in time to save our poor customer’s life, and about how Lana’s going to react to our impending citation, but once again all I can do is look towards my partner and wonder yet again why I’m so monumentally terrible at getting the things I want most.
* * *
The wait for the officer to exit his cruiser and approach our van is excruciating. I want to help. I could offer some reassuring thought, or maybe crack a joke. But I know what sort of assistance Lana would prefer: silence. I even turn the radio off. Lana watches my hand as I fumble with the buttons, which means we’re both staring at the console when the newest text pops up on the cell phone screen. I know the roads are bad, but she won’t make it if you don’t get here soon.
“We’re not that far away,” I say. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“You don’t know that. You have no idea.”
The police officer knocks on my window and I roll it down. He’s an older guy who looks a little like the singer of Smash Mouth (“Hey now, you’re an all-star…”). His eyes pause on Lana’s face for a few extra seconds while the chill of fresh snow pours into the van.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Let’s do this quick,” says Lana. “While we’re screwing around, some poor woman is dying.”
“Excuse me?” the cop says. “Screwing around?”
“Whatever the fuck you call this.” She makes a circular gesture with her hand. “We’re on our way to save someone’s life, and you’re wasting our time.”
The cop looks past me like I’m part of the seat upholstery. “Ma’am, I suggest you be very careful about what you say next.”
“You’re going to let some lady die because your pathetic ego can’t handle the way I talk?”
“Officer, I’m so sorry.” I hold up my hands to break their death stare. “What my partner means is that we need to deliver the medicine we’ve got in back ASAP. Not trying to be dramatic. Not trying to get out of anything. Whatever we did wrong was only because of the seriousness of the situation.”
The officer crosses his arms and drums his fingers on his opposite elbow. He leans forward and tries to see into the back of the van. “Hand me the box,” he says.
Lana’s about to erupt again, but I use my eyebrows to convince her to calm down. I turn in my seat, grab the package, and hand it to the cop.
“You can’t weave in and out of traffic like that, especially in these conditions,” he says as he flips it around and scans the cardboard. He finds the indecipherable label that may or may not contain the name of the drug.
He hands the box back to me. “Do you even know what this is?”
“No idea. We tried Googling it, but nothing came up.” I reach for the phone to show him the texts. “But the customer said it’s life or death.”
“I’ve heard that before.” He gives the situation another few seconds of thought, then shakes his head. “Take it a little easier out there. Got it? The roads are slippery.”
“For sure.” I give him a thumbs-up as he walks back to his cruiser. “Thank you.” I roll up my window.
Lana punches me on the arm. “Holy shit. Great work. I thought we were going to get a ticket for sure.” I shrug, and then Lana says the worst possible thing she could ever say to me. “You were made for package delivery. You don’t even need me anymore. I think you’re ready to go out on your own.”
The night before, over dinner, I had told my Dad about this amazing woman who was training me at this cool new delivery job, and he sighed and asked, “I’m not trying to judge your decisions, but is there a chance you’re settling? Is it possible you’re taking the easy path here?”
I didn’t answer him, of course. But I wanted to say, “No, Dad. It’s not the easy path at all. It’s the only path I’ve got.”
After Lana accelerates back onto the freeway, I’m not as interested in talking as before. But getting pulled over has energized her. She sings in a melodic growl the whole rest of the way to Madison. They’re her own songs, I assume, and every time she hits a “hey” or a “yeah” she gives me a smirk. At first I smile back. But after a while it gets old.
* * *
We find the customer’s house in a big gated development near the lake. Lana tears into the driveway and slams on the brake at the last second. I grab the box out of the back and we jog together up the front walk to the column-framed front door. She rings the doorbell. We wait for longer than I assumed we would, given the ongoing emergency.
Finally a woman wearing a sweater and big earrings opens the door while a pug-looking dog hops around her feet. She startles when she sees Lana’s face, but she recovers quickly and smiles. “You’re here! I hope the trip wasn’t terrible.”
“Are we too late?” asks Lana.
“Not at all. She had a rough morning, but she perked up about an hour ago.” The woman crouches to let the dog lick her fingers, and at first I don’t understand. But Lana does.
“The medicine is for the dog?”
“It’s her insulin,” says the woman.
Lana swallows. “There’s no other dog insulin between here and Minneapolis?”
“It’s a special brand. The regular stuff gives her such awful gas.”
I wince in anticipation of what Lana’s going to say. But after a few seconds pass, all she does is straighten her jacket, turn, and walk back towards the van.
“Thanks for using St. Paul Delivery Express,” I say to the woman as I hand her the box.
“You’re a little pricier than I prefer, but these were extraordinary circumstances.”
By the time I make it back to the vehicle, Lana is already behind the wheel, seat belt on, hands positioned at ten and two. She stays completely still, even after I buckle my own seat belt and point at the road to let her know I’m ready to go.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“I almost strangled that woman.”
“We nearly died for dog insulin.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” She takes the keys out of the ignition and throws them at the windshield. “Are you really that much of a pushover? You’re not bothered at all?”
I unbuckle my seat belt, lean forward, and retrieve the keys from where they’re wedged between the glass and the dashboard. “The dog might have died. We don’t know for sure. And the woman seemed really happy.” I hold the keys out to her in my open palm. “We did our jobs like we were supposed to.”
I don’t know Lana at all, so I have no idea what will happen next. She might scream, she might hit me. My body wants to retreat into the corner of the seat next to the door, but I stay still.
Lana takes the keys, starts the van, and backs into the street. Silence throbs between us until we reach the interstate twenty minutes later. This time, for some reason, Lana is the one who wants to talk.
“What about the song ‘Hey Ya?’ By Outkast?” she asks as she merges into the right lane. “Did you analyze that one?”
“I did. It’s a fascinating example.” This time I keep my gaze locked on the dashed white line blipping beneath the van. “‘Ya’ functions as both ‘yeah’ and ‘you.’ It’s transformative for the entire field of study.” I tell her about it the whole way home.
Eric Rasmussen serves as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor for the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand. He has placed short fiction in Fugue, Gulf Stream, Pithead Chapel, and South Carolina Review, among others. Find him online at theotherericrasmussen.com.