The snow was packed a cold enamel on the leering grin of the exit ramp as he eased off the highway. It was late at night and the roads were empty. The travelers who hadn’t taken refuge in wayside hotels had coasted off onto the ice-crusted shoulders of the highway hours ago. The people huddled inside their cars glanced out as he passed, their faces pale moons with surprised mouths and anxious brows. He kept his gaze slavishly on the road and dared not glance back.
At the gas station off the exit, he filled his car up with shaking fingers. Driving on wintry roads all but undid him, remembering a long ago night when he landed his car in the river. Icy water rose up from the floor of the car as sharp smoke trailed from the vents. If not for a man who lived near the accident and heard the car ripping through the saplings on the bank, that drive through icy mist would have been his last.
The pump asked if he wanted a receipt, but then had no paper and prompted him to see the cashier. This was one of his pet peeves and he rolled his eyes, glancing toward the store. A woman with a frazzled ponytail and a dispiriting blue work apron stood behind the sales counter, looking out through the plate glass at him with bored eyes. He decided her name tag would read ‘Tammi’ and he headed inside to get a coffee and prove himself right. When he stepped into the warmth, she gave him a weak little smile before turning away to pull a box of coffee lids from under the counter.
The place smelled of pine and bleach in equal measure. His feet squeaked on the floor as he crossed to the coffee station. Loosening his jacket, he decided he’d make the rest of the drive festive with a little pumpkin spice creamer.
“I’m surprised you guys are open,” he said. “Have you had much business?”
She shrugged, “Not for a couple hours.”
He busied himself pouring coffee.
“You’re not heading south, are you?” she asked.
She shook her head, “There’s a big accident about two miles up. They’ve closed the highway. I just heard it on the thingamajiggy.” Dropping her gaze and taking a breath, she said, “The scanner.”
He felt his stomach tighten. “Crud.”
“Sorry,” she said. “Thought you’d want to know.”
She seemed the type to like sharing bad news, he thought. Something about her reminded him of a girl he went to school with back in Virginia, a girl who turned to him on the bleachers at morning assembly one day and asked carefully, “Are you a faggot?” That girl had heavy eyelids, silvered with makeup, and her calm gaze had made his heart race more than the question itself. The memory curiously amused him. Turning away now so the cashier wouldn’t see his smile, he fished out a stirrer and gave the coffee a spin.
“Well,” he said. “I guess I’ll stick around for a little while and see if they clear it up.”
“We’ve got seating over there,” she said, flinging a hand toward a row of orange and birch Formica booths.
“Okay,” he said. “Thanks.”
They didn’t talk while he paid for his coffee. He left it at one of the booths and headed out to move his car, steps careful in the freezing slush. Pulling his bag from the back seat, he turned and glanced through the store window just in time to see the cashier spit in his coffee. She glanced up and their eyes locked. A moist string was still trailing from her mouth to the cup. Slowly and unblinkingly, she lowered the coffee back onto the table. Time stretched out, thinner than soup at a homeless shelter.
He wasn’t sure what to do next. He knew he should at least go in and demand his money back. The dread of the confrontation made his guts clinch. The mix of flakes and pellets continued to fall, sugaring his shoulders, pinging off his sneakers. He looked away, squinting across the parking lot.
“Fucking hell,” he muttered.
When he glanced back through the window, she’d moved to the sales counter and was leaning against the register, face blank as she stared stonily across the store. In profile, she had the awkward nose and chin of a cartoon character. Maybe there was a reason for what she did. Did he say something rude? Whatever the cause, looking at the round hump of her nose and the sly dip of her chin, he decided he hated her through and though.
He started toward the door and she popped up straight, rocking her elbows back to make her chest barrel out. She squeezed her lips into a straight line, matching his gaze. He faltered, stepping back.
“Well, Jesus,” he murmured, his foggy breath a vanishing bloom.
They held the awkward gaze for another long moment. Finally, he dropped his eyes and decided to get back in his car. Maybe there was another route he could take for now. He might hook back to the highway farther up the way. She watched him as he folded himself into his car.
He looked up again before steering out of the slot and saw her pick up the befouled coffee and sip it. She turned to face him fully, rubbing circles on her belly. Shaping her lips with clownish precision, she mouthed the words, “So good.”
He sat there, hand bones popping on the steering wheel, knowing if he left without squaring things, he’d never forgive himself. Taking a bolstering breath, he drove over to the pumps and put the car in park. He opened the door and sprang out. With deliberate steps, he crossed to the trash barrel, lifted the lid and pulled out the bag of trash. He turned it upside down and, obligingly, a cold gale carried the trash across the parking lot. A confetti parade of wrappers, bottles and napkins swept toward the store, as if each piece of debris delighted in his revenge. Perhaps they were just glad to be free.
As she bolted out the door, face red and ready, he ducked back in the car and spun out of the parking lot and onto the road, fishtailing madly, laughter filling the car, surprising and wonderful. In the rear view mirror, she pointed at him, shrieking curses he could only imagine. Some miles away, he realized he’d never checked her name tag. He was still pretty sure she was a Tammi. He’d never liked the name.