Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Doug Heckman, originally from Granby, Colorado, graduated from the Air Force Academy. After enjoying the Utah snow for four years, he moved to Palo Alto, California, where he is now pursuing a Masters in English. His one other published story won the Seedhouse Short Story Contest.
Noise surrounds me here in this Wendy's, in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Sitting at the back edge of the dining room and I feel like a child, with my family talking and moving around me. I sit still and hear the cash registers compete with orders of Frosties, fries, and extra large Dr. Peppers. An old man explains for the second time to the blond, German-looking teenager that onions make his stomach ache late in the night. I hear a trashcan lid scrape a tray free of wrappers, and a boy lays the brown, plastic tray atop the square garbage can. I one-hand my loaded, double cheeseburger, and a slippery tomato escapes, crumples on the wax paper below.
For seven weeks now, I've worked Wyoming's width of I80. Carney Family Construction (CFC), contracted by the state, hired me. It's a decent job. Sometimes I drive two or three hundred miles a day, all the while collecting $9.50 per hour.
With Wyoming's weather and the high levels of truck traffic, CFC stays busy. They put me on the cleanup crew; I had no prior highway maintenance experience. My coworkers call me, Rook, short for Rookie. I've never had a nickname. That, and I'm just glad that the seasoned workers recognize me: a city man from the Midwest. I don't operate heavy trucks and I don't ratio inches of road base to cement.
What I do is this. When wind or vehicles strike the orange barrels which define an amended lane's width, I fill them with more sand. I mend snow fences. Sometimes the orange fence surrounding the parking lots of CFC's earth movers, other times fences which protect rest stop trashcans: snow fences, like life preservers, keeping valuables on top in the winter sea. When I'm not doing barrels or fences, there are speed limit signs to exchange. I fix fence, shovel sand, and replace signs. It's my decision so I don't complain.
A trucker in the next booth talks on the phone. It makes sense what Wendy's did, installing these beige phones in every booth. Wyoming can be lonely. The phones are like a phone in your own kitchen: cords tangle and never seem to stretch far enough. The trucker hangs up, wipes his crumbs onto the floor, and walks away. I left my family to live in Wyoming. Back home, my family and I would be impressed with a strong wind during a thunderstorm, or before a winter blast. Here, wind is a constant. I've seen a clear-day wind topple a barrier with fifty pounds of sand, the sand scattering, then quickly disappearing into the sagebrush. Even now, in June, I wear my insulated one piece, hot as hell when you're driving, but essential when outside. I've heard stories about snow drifts swallowing barns, rest stop shelters, semis.
Nine out of ten times, I don't pick up the phone. But thoughts of weather and home remind me of calm summers and locust song. There's little privacy here and I look around as I shift towards the phone. A tourist family, a local heavy set woman, and a Harley Davidson couple sit at other tables. Although they camouflage their interest with shallow conversations or stares outside, I understand their desire to connect with something in my life. I feel their attention occupy the other seats at my table. It doesn't help that I'm 5'4". My hair's short; I can't grow a beard. I wear a NRA hat and my one piece coverall, but people know I'm too small for this land. I put the beige handset to my ear. The dial tone is set loud; I turn it down with the side button and push the teeth-size keys.
His hello is enough; I could hang up now and walk back to the wind. But I say, "hey" to my 17 year old son and then there's a pause, a pause telling me I'm here and he's there.
"It's only been six days," he says.
"I know," I say. "I guess this call makes two in a week. It seemed longer. It's almost embarrassing, isn't it?"
"For you or me?" he asks.
"The wind's still blowing," I say. "It never stops. You should see it." In the parking lot, another Harley couple parks, dismounts. In unison, they rub their backs and walk side by side to the door.
"You always say that," he says. "`You should see it.'"
"You should," I say. "Just come out here. It'd be cheap by bus."
"What about hitching?" he asks. "It worked for you." I can see my son looking to the backyard, past the screened enclosed porch, towards the grass and fence.
"How's the yard?" I ask.
"Perfect," I say. In the dining room, the Harley couples nod to each other and the tourist family stands, stretches. A redheaded girl goes for a refill. The local woman, spreading pepper on her fries, stares my way. "Perfect," I say again. I want to describe how the sunsets seem more vivid here. Or that most horizons lie a hundred miles away. But instead I tell him, "Firework stands every thirty miles. Sometimes we buy a case of bottle rockets and build a mini cannon out of PVC pipe. It'll shoot golf balls clean through a port-o-can: two perfect holes." "Mom's not here," he says.
"Oh," I say. I roll the yellow wax paper into a ball. "I wasn't really calling for her."
"She's at the mall," he says, and then I hear him sit down at our glossy, apple-red table, a rustling of paper, a magazine opening.
"Will you tell her I called?" I ask. She's around so many people, so many men.
"Sure," my son says. And then, "I stained the deck today." I hear his voice crack and I know he remembers when he and I built the deck two years ago. "I put down two coats. We're supposed to have a hot summer."
"That's good," I say. "It's not that windy out here, you know. You could drive with me and see Wyoming. It's about all I do."
"Sure," he says. "I'll tell Mom you called." And then I know this call is over, so we say goodbye. I return the handset and I notice the local lady look away.
Tomorrow I'll drive east to Wamsutter and check rations in the emergency shelters. I'm glad it's a long drive. I think of traveling like the tourist family, with my wife and son with me, but I know now that's impossible. Or maybe my son and I traveling as two, like the Harley couples, only in a truck or car so that I could explain why I left.
I stand and dump my trash. I pass through the air trap, the room between outside and inside, and it's so quiet, the noises of the dining room erased. Outside Wendy's now and the wind blows and my eyes start to tear before I can push on my sunglasses.