Inclement Weather

by Eric Rasmussen

   Mrs. Lee stood on the patio in front of her condo in a long wool coat, while her small dog yipped and tried to climb her leg. She must have been waiting a long time; the snow accumulated on her shoulders. Colton made eye contact with her as he pulled into the parking lot, and she waved him over. He had no choice but to comply. His grandmother had trained him too well. He pulled his pickup up to her garage door and grabbed his stocking hat off the passenger seat. Five inches of snow lay on the ground already, and the meteorologists had promised another nine. At 11:00 AM, Colton had already put in seven hours, and the storm wasn’t supposed to let up until late. He was going to have a very long day. He got out of the truck.
   “Yeah?” he said as he dodged the big plow blade on the front of the Chevy.
   “I don’t understand.” She planted her hands on her hips, which shook some of the flakes from her shoulders.
   “Oh,” said Colton.
   She waited, but Colton said nothing. “I don’t understand how we can hire you to plow the lot, and then we never see you. If you don’t want our business, just say so. If…if you can’t take this seriously, then just forget the whole deal.”
   The responses raced through Colton’s head. I’m real sorry, but I’m here now. Or, we agreed that I’d stop over every three to four inches, but when it’s coming down like this, it’s tough. Even something like, I could alter my route, but we’d have to take another look at what I’m charging you. But nothing reached his lips. He just stood there.
   “Say something,” Mrs. Lee demanded.
   People ordered Colton to “say something” a lot. Back in school, some of his teachers made that demand with gentle sweetness, while others barked it like drill sergeants. His grandma told him to “say something” all the time, like when she asked him what he wanted for breakfast, or when she made him sit on the couch to chat. Sometimes Colton was able to talk, but never after someone told him to “say something.” No words ever came after that.
   “Unbelievable,” said Mrs. Lee. “I can assure you, this is the last time you’ll have this job. I don’t care who you know.” She shook her head and turned to go inside. “And we’re not paying you for this time, either.” She bent over to grab the dog’s rope off the ground, and clipped it to the animal’s collar. “Go potty, Tika. Hurry up.”
   Colton stood still and nodded. No responses blew through his head this time. He didn’t even know what to think. He turned, got in his truck, and started to work.
   The repetition of the job calmed him down. His snowplow was like an artist’s paintbrush. He knew exactly where the corner of the blade was. He knew exactly where to turn and how to push the piles of snow into uniform banks. He could plow within a few inches of a building and never nick the siding. The Evergreen Court Condominiums’ lot was a big one, six buildings with four units each, surrounding a broad expanse of blacktop. Colton started at the far side, as far away from Mrs. Lee as he could get.
   By the time he returned to Mrs. Lee’s end, the first part he plowed had collected a layer of snow. But that didn’t make any difference. The old people who lived in Evergreen Court would never leave on a day like today, no matter what appointments they might have or how much they needed to grocery shop. But they were still obsessed with keeping the lot plowed. Maybe they wanted it clear in case a kid or grandkid stopped over for a surprise visit. Maybe they just didn’t have enough to worry about anymore.
   Colton came around the front of Mrs. Lee’s building and pushed away the snow that had drifted up next to her garage door. He angled the plow at the last minute so the resulting snow bank didn’t extend onto her patio. He backed up to plow another row, when he saw it.
   On the first plow of the year, the heavy steel blade picked up all sorts of stuff. Sticks, frisbees, plastic pop bottles, rocks, everything buried under the snow ended up sticking out of those first snow banks. But after that, the lots stayed pretty empty. He’d mangled a few sleds that kids had forgotten in their driveways, but he’d never hit anything too significant, too tragic.
   Until now. The dark spot in the snow bank grew as he watched it, a small blob ringed with red. At first he denied it, even though he could see the dog’s severed rope laying right there in the lot. He denied it as his hands started to shake and his throat closed and all of a sudden he couldn’t breath. He was going to die too, right there in the truck, because he choked and couldn’t get any air. He gasped and almost threw up and felt the urge to run. He wanted to put the truck in gear and drive away, but he stopped himself.
   Instead he climbed out of the cab to inspect, because maybe there was a chance Mrs. Lee let her dog in and he just hit the rope and what looked like a mangled dog bleeding in the snow bank was an illusion, an old mitten reflecting the Chevy’s headlights in some weird way. But as he approached the mound, he saw the remains, like so many rabbits dead in the road. He looked away quick. Maybe if he didn’t acknowledge it, it wouldn’t be true.
   He wasn’t proud of his plan, but it was the only one he had, and he had to act fast. He got back in the truck, plowed the next swipe, and angled the truck to deposit the snow on top of the dog’s carcass. No evidence remained, at least not until spring. His grandma would be so disappointed. She would tell him to take responsibility and talk to Mrs. Lee, but he couldn’t do that, no matter how much he wanted to, no matter how hard he tried. He plowed the rest of the lot like he would have anyway, like nothing ever happened. He glanced at Mrs. Lee’s door with every pass, convinced she would emerge with the wrath of Jesus in her eyes, but she remained inside, clueless about the murder of her little dog.
   When he finished, he turned down the driveway, and out onto the road. He had a ton more work to do, and he was almost out of gas.

   Focus on the work and the rest will take care of itself. That’s what his grandma always said.
   But while he waited for his tank to fill, Colton couldn’t help but stare at the businessman on the other side of the pumps. The guy’s trench coat was covered with ice. He took off his glasses and tried to wipe away the condensation with his damp lapel, which streaked the lenses worse than before. He stepped in a puddle, then lifted his soaked foot. “Give me a break,” he said. After the guy swiped his credit card and settled to watch the numbers on the screen tick upward, he leaned to make eye contact with Colton between the pump and the column with the windshield-washing buckets. “You must love this,” the businessman said, pointing at the plow on the front of Colton’s truck.
   Colton looked up and shrugged. “Sure.” His hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
   “Yeah, well…” The guy wiped a handful of snow off the roof of his car and let it slop onto to the ground. “I hate this shit.”
   The shelter of the gas station roof created a small pocket of clarity in a landscape of angry, relentless white. The snow fell heavy and fast, flakes the size of marbles, sometimes straight down, sometimes horizontal. The lights of the cars out on the highway barely permeated the blizzard, but the shelter’s fluorescent lights reflected back into the protected bubble, twice as bright as normal.
   “I always wanted your job,” said the guy. “Drive around all day, crank the radio. Make some big snow banks. It’s like playing in a sandbox, right?”
   “Yeah.”
   “Well, I’ve got god-damned depositions all day. You’re the lucky one, for sure.”
   “Yeah.”
   A fresh panic squeezed Colton’s chest. The guy leaned against his fancy car with his eyebrows raised. Colton’s customers gave him that face after they asked small-talk questions. “How’s business?” they always asked. “Fine,” Colton always said, because that’s what it was. It either snowed a lot, or it didn’t. If it did, there’d be a dry spell soon. If it didn’t, some was certainly on the way. It was always fine. But they stood there and waited for him to say something else, and he never knew what else to say. Fine. Everything was fine.
   Colton copied the guy and leaned back against his truck, careful to avoid the rust spot above the rear wheel. He stared at the ground and nodded and realized how tightly he had clenched his jaw. He tried to think of something to ask. Depositions meant this guy was a lawyer, probably. Maybe an insurance guy. He could ask which. He could ask about the guy’s Lexus. He could comment about school. They didn’t cancel school, even though the storm was supposed to dump upwards of fourteen inches. Everyone had an opinion on that, either, “How could they not cancel school, those poor kids,” or “Good choice, they never cancelled school when we were young.” All Colton would have to say was, “Can you believe they didn’t cancel school?” Then they would talk, like people are supposed to.
   A minute later, the guy stood up straight and removed the gas nozzle from his car. “Alright then,” he said. “Good luck out there.”
   “Yep,” said Colton. The businessman got in his car while Colton’s truck guzzled more fuel. At least gas was cheaper than last year, cheaper than the last seven years. Colton could have talked about that. “Gas sure is cheap, isn’t it?” Then the guy would have said something like, “Sure is. Let’s hope it stays that way.” Then Colton could have said, “You bet. Anything under two bucks, I’m happy.” That would have worked.
   Colton replaced the nozzle in the pump and climbed in his truck. It had been running since a little after four in the morning, so the heater blasting on the floor mats made them smell like hot rubber and the cigarette burn holes in the bench seat released the mildew smell of damp foam and the fast food wrappers added a tinge of grease, of meat. Suddenly Colton was sweating, even as shivers raced across his shoulders. He cracked the window and pulled out of the protected cube into the winter stew.
   His route had been planned since the first snow in November. On a map, it looked like Pac-Man, a big circuit of his grandma’s friends from church, and a handful of apartment buildings and condo developments that his cousin handled maintenance for, and a few houses of people who got his number off the side of the Chevy. The plan needed tweaking every time it snowed. If the weather arrived before dawn, Colton had to start on the east side of the city, because when Mr. Halvorsen’s driveway wasn’t clear before he left for work, Colton got a phone call. If any more than three inches accumulated in the Evergreen Court Condominium’s parking lot, he got a phone call from Mrs. Lee, so on a day like today he had to stop over there four or five times. He could save the south side for last, because the big city plows didn’t get to that part of town until it stopped snowing. But when he took too long, when Mrs. Gross or Mr. Frank or Mr. Galloway had to sit in their cars in the street because their driveways were blocked, then Colton got calls.
   That phone. That g-d phone. A hundred times a day, Colton’s stomach twisted when a stray vibration from the truck or a stray noise from the radio reminded him of the ringing phone. And when it rang for real, the little electronic melody tortured him more that his teachers or his grandma ever could.
   Two minutes and two stoplights outside the gas station, the phone rang.
   “Yeah,” said Colton.
   “Is this Severson Plowing?”
   “Yeah.”
   “I can’t hear you. Is this Severson plowing?”
   “Yeah.”
   “Okay, well, this is Tammy. My customers can’t get into the parking lot. Are you on your way over?”
   “Right.”
   “Are you sure?”
   Colton’s right arm started shaking again, and his throat started to close. He breathed, slow. “Coming,” he said, after a moment.
   “So you’ll be over soon.”
   “Okay.”
   “See you soon.” Colton held the phone out in front of him for a moment, like a pot that needed to cool before he could set it on the counter. As soon as he placed it back in the cup holder, it rang again.
   “Yeah,” said Colton.
   “Hey, Mike, from over on Summer Street.”
   “Hey.”
   “What the hell is going on?”
   What the hell is going on is this is the biggest blizzard I’ve ever seen, and nothing about our agreement could possibly cover what’s happening out here today. Mike, I am doing my absolute best, and I promise I will be there ASAP. “Nothing,” said Colton.
   “So you’re not coming over? I’m just fucked then?”
   “Nope.”
   “Nope what? What’s that mean? Do I need to grab a shovel?”
   “No.”
   “So when are you coming?”
   I am going to do my absolute best to get over there as soon as I can. And, hey, because this is such a crazy day, let me discount your bill ten percent. Consider that my apology, and my promise that I am doing everything humanly possible to meet your expectations. “Soon,” said Colton.
   “Don’t fuck with me. If you say soon, you better mean it.”
   Colton paused again, to wait for this throat to unclench. The windshield wipers had trouble keeping up with the snow. It took two swipes before he could force the words out.
   “Okay.”
   “Okay,” said Mike.
   Colton took a left into a strip-mall parking lot to turn around. He tried to calm down, because he needed to think.
   Mike’s place was almost straight west, four stops away, according to the original route, and Tammy’s scrapbook shop was north of Mike’s. A quick jog down the highway to Mike’s, then up to Tammy’s, then take the bypass back to where he left off, and Colton could salvage the day. That might work. It had to work.
   He pulled out onto the highway, and at least he had the road almost to himself. A few other guys with their plows were out, and a few big four-wheel-drive SUVs, but that was it. When Colton squinted and tried to look past the flakes, he could see the outlines of the landmarks along the highway. The old barn with the painting of Jesus on it. The house with the big RV in the driveway. The brick supper club on the corner. As he drove, the snow fell even harder, harder than Colton had ever seen, harder than he thought possible. Three miles down the highway, he couldn’t see any of the other cars on the road. He couldn’t see anything at all. Almost a half-inch of snow collected on the driver’s door armrest from the open window. Colton cranked it closed.
   No matter how mad Mike would be, driving in a full whiteout was too dangerous. And there’s no way Tammy’s customers were angry about not being able to get into her lot, because she wouldn’t get any customers on a day like today. Colton pulled off to the side of the highway, where the pickup’s wheels skidded, which meant he found the gravel shoulder. He turned off the truck, clicked the button for his hazard lights, and sat back. The patter of the flakes on the windshield was so quiet, so gentle, that it made him nervous. The edges of his vision shimmered, like he had stared too long at a bright light. He had to keep working. He should close his eyes for a few minutes, for the only moments of sleep he would get for the next sixteen hours. But he wouldn’t. There was too much to do.
   The phone rang. Except this time, Colton ignored it.
   Instead, he used his sleeve to wipe the condensation off the inside of the windshield, and he stared out into the thick swirl of white. If he were buried in a snow bank, like Mrs. Lee’s dog, that was exactly how it would look. All white, like a big blanket. Maybe it was nice, being covered like that.
   If it snowed like that all the time, Colton could buy a new truck and move out of his grandma’s trailer. He’d have to hire somebody. Maybe two or three guys. He had considered bringing on an employee a few different times, someone who could talk to customers and drum up more business, someone who could go door to door and hand out fliers with neighbor discounts to the houses and parking lots surrounding his existing customers. “Hi, I’m with Severson plowing. Are you sick of shoveling all the time? Would you rather enjoy the snowfall with a cup of cocoa instead of killing yourself with all that work? Well, since we’re in the neighborhood already, we can take care of your snow for cheaper than you think…”
   He could print off business cards. He thought of what logo he could use, maybe a snow shovel or a snowflake. He could leave stacks all over town, at the churches, and the gas stations. He could send one of his guys with a bunch of cards to all the condo developments and old folks homes and apartment buildings. He could buy a new truck. Three new trucks.
   The phone kept ringing. Maybe voicemail had yet to snag the first call, or maybe a second customer was on the line, or a third. All of a sudden Colton couldn’t tell how long he’d been sitting there.
   He had to get out of the truck. He had to see what it felt like, what it sounded like, to be buried in all that snow.
   He exited through the passenger door and took a few steps into the ditch on the side of the highway. The snow came above his boots, and it stung his ankles as it packed in around his socks. Colton looked out over the field, then to his left and right, up and down the highway. He saw nothing. He turned around, and his truck, fifteen feet away, looked hazy and white in the blizzard. Only the dome light through the open door stood out, a single point of warmth in the impossibly deep nothing that enveloped him. Most people would flee back towards the light, but instead he turned to the field again, to the immense quiet. The snow absorbed the sound of the phone. If anyone tried talking to him out here, Colton wouldn’t be able to hear them, and it wouldn’t matter what he said in return. The snow filled in his collar, and settled behind his ears.
   And then the white wasn’t all white anymore. Instead it flashed red and blue, and the blizzard stopped trapping all the sound, because Colton heard someone yelling.
   “Hey,” shouted the sheriff’s deputy. “Are you all right? Everything okay?”
   Colton shivered, and turned. He could barely see the woman standing up on the shoulder. He didn’t say anything, only nodded.
   “You sure? Your truck’s not stalled out or anything?”
   He shook his head.
   “Okay. Waiting out this squall is a good idea, if that’s what you’re doing.” She wiped the snow off the brim of her hat. “And thanks for using your flashers. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” She leaned backward to see down the highway, past Colton’s truck. “You sure you don’t have anything to say?”
   Colton just stared at her.
   “That’s fine if you don’t,” she said. “Take your time, but I need to keep moving.”
   Thank you very much, but I’m okay. I just need a few minutes out here, and then I’ll get right back to work. Colton pictured the dog buried under all that snow. It probably wasn’t even cold anymore. It didn’t need to worry about awful Mrs. Lee anymore, or Mike or Tammy or anyone else. Colton wanted to feel what the dog felt. He decided to try.
   “Thanks,” he said to the officer. “I… I’m good.”
   “Okay.” The officer turned back to her cruiser, but stopped. “If you’ve got time today, I could sure use someone to plow my driveway. You got a card I could have?”

   Mike and Tammy would have to wait. Colton wove back into town, past the gas station and the car dealership, back to the Evergreen Court condos, with all their mature trees, where one of the office ladies from his grandma’s church lived. It looked like he had never been there. There had to be another two inches on the ground, and Mrs. Lee probably had her ruler at the ready, and as soon as she measured three she would dial Colton’s number and sigh and tell him that he was terrible at his job and if it were up to her, she would have fired him three months ago. He pulled up to her garage door, and turned off the truck.
   Colton didn’t bother to grab his hat or his gloves, because it didn’t matter. The chill no longer bothered him. He crossed in front of his truck and over Mrs. Lee’s patio. The overhang above her door didn’t make any difference. It snowed just as hard under it, flakes blowing up and down and sideways. He rang the doorbell. The door opened half a minute later.
   Mrs. Lee gathered her sweater in front of her chest with one hand. “What on earth do you want?”
   It took Colton a long time, but he breathed and opened and closed his jaw and nodded and blinked, and finally he was ready. “You… You need to be nice to me.” He made himself look up at Mrs. Lee. “I’m doing… the best I can.”
   “I doubt that,” she said. “If that’s the case, your best is pathetic.”
   The dry furnace air poured out of Mrs. Lee’s front door, melting the ice on Colton’s clothes and warming his face. He preferred the cold.
   “By… By the way,” he said. “Your dog’s dead.”
   Mrs. Lee glared at him. “I’m certain I let him in.”
   “I don’t think so,” said Colton. He turned and walked away as Mrs. Lee scanned the ground, each turn of her head more frantic as her breath came quicker and she started to moan, looking for what she had assumed was there.

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Sundog Lit, Pithead Chapel, Gulf Stream, Black Fox Literary, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand, and fiction reader for Split Lip Magazine.