by Kerri Hecox
Kerri Hecox

Kerri Hecox lives with her husband and two children in Southern Oregon. She is trying to take up creative writing again, realizing that she really does need the right half of her brain.

When he stepped out onto the front porch, the first thing Reggie did was crush the dried-out husk of a cicada with his foot. The cicada was the size of a silver dollar and was perfect, every line of its now transformed body preserved in papery exoskeleton. If Reggie had seen it, he would have picked it up and placed it on the mantle where he had a small collection of similar findings: a scorpion tail, a deer mandible with the teeth intact, the skeletons of a snake and a small bird. Usually he kept an eye out for such things. Today he was in a bad mood, and late for work.

Reggie walked briskly over to his Chevy pickup. It was cold and he fumbled with the keys for a moment, the wind stinging his bare fingers. An ice storm had raged the last two days, and the thermometer on the side of the house still read below freezing. The early crocuses he planted for Susan lay wilted along the edge of the driveway, their blooms shattered by the late storm. The back wheels of the truck packed them further into the dirt as Reggie pulled out.

The truck started to warm after about a mile and the warmth made Reggie's mood lighten slightly. He let his hands relax around the steering wheel and thought over the morning. It had gone fine until he woke up, he thought sourly. The morning started with Reggie getting up and Susan not getting up, their usual routine. She never got up anymore. Reggie could come home at 6 o'clock at night and Susan would be sitting at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, like it was the crack of dawn. Today Reggie had gone into Susan's room after he got dressed and sat on the edge of her bed. "The 700 Club is on,'' he said. She used to like The 700 Club.

Although she didn't open her eyes, Reggie knew she was awake. "Maybe you could go over to your sister's house today. Bring your sewing machine and do some sewing." He touched her leg through the blankets. "You could fix those shirts.''

Susan lay still for a moment and then her eyes sprang open, "I'm not going to fix your fucking shirts! Fix your own fucking shirts!'' She screamed and lunged toward him, pushing him away. He got off the bed and left.

Reggie looked out the window debating whether cracking it to have a cigarette was worth it, it was so fucking cold out. The trees lining the road were beaten from the storm; long cords of icicles hanging from their branches glistened in the morning sun. They look like crazy old women with their hair flying everywhere, Reggie thought. The tobacco fields behind the trees had been cleared for planting and stood empty, acres of frozen mud. Reggie's eyes drifted over the fields until his attention was caught by something large and white on the shoulder of the road. A heron was frozen partly into the mud. It was lying on its side, half its body locked in the earth and the other half flopping lifelessly in the wind. One great wing waved rhythmically at the truck as he drove by. Reggie stared at it through the windshield and then watched it in the rear view mirror until the tail lights of the car in front of him diverted his attention. The car ahead was slowing down.

The car went from tail-lights to hazard lights. "It's a woman,'' Reggie said aloud, snapping his attention back to the road. "Doesn't even know to pull over to the side of the road.'' The car slowed to a stop. It sat squarely in the middle of the southbound lane of the two lane road.

"Idiot!'' He honked the horn, hitting it angrily with the side of his closed fist. "Get the fuck out of the way!'' He yelled, the words echoing back at him inside the cab of the truck. There was too much on-coming traffic to pull around.

"Fuck.'' Reggie looked in his rear-view mirror and then at his watch. He was already late for work. There were two other cars behind him now and a semi that was still a little in the distance but slowing down. He looked ahead again. The northbound lane was a steady stream of vehicles heading into Cokesville. The stopped car gave no sign of moving and no one was getting out of it. He could see clearly now that it was a woman, her face was turned toward the back seat and her head tilted down, fiddling with something back there.

"For Christ sake,'' he said, opening the truck door, "this is just what I need.'' Reggie got out and felt the cold wind strike his face like a snowball. He slammed the door and walked toward the stopped car.

It was about five brisk strides to the car, a white Toyota with a local license plate. The woman had seen him coming. The driver's side window was rolled down slightly and the woman looked up at him through the crack.

"I'm sorry,'' she started nervously, her voice high-pitched and strained. "You can't get around me, can you? I think there's something wrong with the car! I think it's a tire, but it's all muddy on the side of the road and the kids started screaming and the baby made this choking sound and I panicked and just stopped the car. He's okay though,'' the woman made a sweeping gesture toward the back seat and nodded her head. "I think it was a Cheerio. I know he's too young to be eating Cheerios in the car but he likes them so much and sometimes when they all start crying I can't get 'em to be quiet and it gets so loud in the car so I give him the bag of Cheerios and he quiets down and if he quiets down then the other two usually will . . . .''

"Let me look at the tires; you stay right there,'' Reggie said, cutting her off. The woman's hair curled coarsely in every direction and her face was flushed. Reggie could see her lips continuing to move even as he walked out of hearing range. He didn't know why he told her to stay in the car; she hadn't made any sign of getting out of it.

Reggie looked in the back seat. It was crammed full with car seats, three of them taking up every inch of space. Two identical twin girls, maybe two or three years old, looked back at him with curious expressions. In between them was a red-faced, blobby creature, busily popping Cheerios into its mouth. He, she said it was a he, Reggie thought, although really the kid looked pudgy and hairless and more like a doll with one of those amorphous plastic lumps where its genitals should be. He stared at the child for a moment. Would the baby have looked like this?

"Is there something wrong in the back, mister?'' The woman stuck her head out the window. "Do you see something?''

"Huh?'' Reggie snapped his head around.

"Is there something wrong in the back?'' The woman yelled, her eyes following his gaze to the little boy.

Reggie shook his head vigorously, as much to clear his thoughts as to respond to the woman. "No. I think it's your front tire that's the problem. We need to get you off to the side of the road. Do you have a spare?'' Reggie knew it was a flat in the front when he walked up, he could tell by the way the car was sitting.

"A spare?'' The woman paused. "A spare . . . tire?''

People were beginning to honk behind them. The semi pulled its horn, a long piercing sound. The twin girls started screaming.

"Let me push you off to the side,'' Reggie said. The cold and the wind were starting to bother him, and the face of the boy in the back seat was making him uneasy, stirring up all kinds of memories. He just wanted to get back into his truck.

The woman stared at him, paralyzed somewhere between the spare tire question and the screeching in the back seat. "Ma'am, put your car in neutral and steer to the side of the road. I'm going to push you with my truck.'' Reggie looked at the woman intently. "Ma'am, do you hear me?''

The woman abruptly put her head back into the car. Reggie walked toward the window, and heard her saying to the backseat. "It's okay sweeties, this nice man is going to help us and when the car is all better we're going to go for ice cream! Won't that be fun? Hush now.''

"Ma'am did you hear me?'' Reggie repeated, his face hunched over next to the window.

"Huh? Yes, I heard you.'' The woman looked up and nodded. "Put the car in neutral and steer to the side of the road.''

Reggie looked at the little hairless blob in the center of the back seat again, his mouth a perfect wide 'O' joining his sisters in screaming. Reggie turned and jogged back to the truck. His ears were so cold he could barely feel them.

He got into the truck and started it up. Why was he pushing her? The thought that this was unnecessary hadn't occurred to him before. It was just a flat tire, the car should be able to drive to the side of the road. Women, they make you think all stupid. Well, it should work anyway; at least it would get her off the road. ''God, I'm really going to be late now,'' he mumbled under his breath.

Reggie put the truck in first gear and inched forward toward the Toyota, thinking about the baby in the back. Such a little thing, it hardly looked human. How do they get to be people, those little blobs? Reggie thought of Susan looking through baby magazines. She had bought so many of those baby magazines, all of them with what looked like the same bald little smiling blob on the front, dressed up in different outfits, and with article titles like "Spitting up, how much is too much?'' He had thumbed through a couple of them.

Reggie inched forward and the car started to move slowly. Did that woman tell her kids she was taking them for ice cream? Does she give them hot chocolate on the fucking Fourth of July? He looked at the side of the road. It was a sea of thick mud. There was a paved cross road about 500 yards up, though. He hoped the woman would think to aim there, he should have told her, but it was too late now. Just as he was thinking this the Toyota veered off at almost a right angle, waves of mud slapping over the tires as it drove off the road. The woman must have turned the wheel as far as it would go because the angle was ridiculous; a moment later there was only a corner of the car's bumper still in contact with the truck's and the front of the car was well off the pavement, already starting to sink.

In the split second that the car turned it occurred to Reggie to just keep driving. He could call Triple-A or the highway patrol once he reached work. He was already late, it was freezing, and he didn't know the woman anyway. Maybe she had a cell phone and she could call Triple-A. It's not like they wouldn't be found, they were only a mile outside of Cokesville, and with the line-up behind them surely somebody else would stop if they really needed it. All these thoughts flashed through Reggie's mind as he eased the truck in front of the Toyota. But the little blob in the back seat was working on him, and he couldn't quite drive away.

"Fuck.'' He stepped out into the boot-high mud.

The woman was looking at him in the side rearview mirror as he approached. She hadn't rolled down the window, or popped her trunk, or even turned off the car. I'm trying to do a good deed here, lady; can you work with me? He could hear the din from inside the car, all three kids screaming like little banshees, and for the first time the woman seemed not to be paying attention to them. She was just looking at Reggie with a strange expression on her face.

"Can you hear me?'' He yelled at her through the closed window.

She nodded, but didn't roll down the window. Would Susan act like this much of a dumb shit if she was in trouble and had their kids in the car? Their kids. Well, that's not going to happen, is it? Reggie felt a pang that made his anger increase. The woman kind of looked like Susan, he thought, at least she looked like Susan had before she gained all that weight. Reggie looked past the woman and focused in on the little boy. He was just blubbering a bit now, not really screaming, but his little face kept the cherry red color. He's cute, Reggie finally decided. His anger lessened.

The woman noticed him looking at the boy. "What are you doing?'' She mouthed through the glass.

"I'm going to change your tire,'' he answered, shifting his gaze back to her. "Is your spare in the back?''

The car was a hatchback, so to get to the tire would require opening the back of the car. The woman seemed to be thinking about this. She didn't answer.

Reggie suddenly realized the woman was afraid. She wouldn't shut up before and now she was almost mute, and she had the doors locked. Reggie knew he was a big man and could scare people if he wanted to, if he was angry. But she hadn't seemed scared before. Did she think he was going to try to steal her kids, or kill them? Lady, if you only knew. He walked to his truck, undid the back, and got his tools and some 2-by-4s. He carried the 2-by-4s to the front of the car and laid them in front of the left wheel.

"Okay,'' he yelled through the closed window, "You need to do three things. First, drive up onto those 2-by-4s. Second, pop your trunk so I can get your spare tire. Third, turn off the car and put on the emergency brake. Do you understand me?''

She nodded.

He smiled to try to put her at ease. He didn't feel like smiling, though. The cold was ripping through him and the woman's fear affected him, eating at his anger and transforming it into something else, a feeling he was less comfortable with. "Okay, do it,'' he said.

The woman put the car in gear and jerked forward, bringing the car up onto the 2-by-4s. He heard the "pop'' of the hatch, and he walked around to the back of the car. Reggie eased open the hatch as little as he could, trying not to let the wind directly in. The twin girls craned their necks around to look at him. "It's cold!''

"I know it is darlin'. I just need to get this tire,'' Reggie said and smiled at her. This time the smile felt more genuine. They're cute too, he thought. Looking at them made the uncomfortable feeling stronger. He felt suddenly achy. He opened the floor of the hatchback, found the spare, and took it out in a swift motion. He closed the hatch as quickly as he could.

He walked around to the driver's side and bent down to the still closed window. "Okay, turn the car off and put on the emergency brake. And this is important, do not move around inside the car or make the car shake in any way. If you do, the car could come off the jack. Did you hear that? No moving.''

The woman nodded her head.

He moved around to front of the car and tried to focus on the situation. The achy feeling was something he hadn't felt in months. Memories were pushing at him. The woman's fear brought back the face of that nurse, the one who had been so terrified of him. That bitch, he thought with a resurgence of anger, Susan deserved better than that. Reggie gave his head a hard shake and knelt down to put the jack under the rim of the car.

Reggie had been standing by the ice machine next to the nurse's station when he heard the nurses talking.

"Sure, I mean I feel bad for her, a stillbirth is horrible. But it was so early anyway; there was no way that baby could make it.'' The nurse's voice burned in Reggie ears. She was whispering loudly, the kind of whisper that wants to reach an audience. Five or six other nurses were gathered around her. "We've had the chaplain in there and the Grief Team has been by like three times. She's got to let us get rid of it; for god's sake, it's been two days. It's stinking up the room.''

Reggie held Susan's cup under the machine as ice overflowed onto the floor, the chink chink chink echoing down the hall. One of the nurses looked over and gave Susan's nurse a sharp elbow. The nurses all stopped talking. Reggie let the ice continue to fall onto the floor. No one said a word. When the machine was empty, he walked back to Susan's room.

Susan was lying in bed, the little bundle of blankets tucked under her right arm. The baby's dead, Susan, Reggie had said to her the night before, as gently as he could, after the nurse had come in for the fourth time asking to take it away. I know he is, Reggie, but I just want to hold him a little while longer, okay?

Reggie looked at Susan, and pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He struck a match and lit it.

Their nurse walked in a moment later. She looked at Reggie and started, almost losing her balance.

"What are you doing? You can't smoke in here.''

Reggie took a long drag from the cigarette and blew it out his nose. "You said it stunk in here. I'm just trying to freshen the air.''

The nurse fumbled back toward the door. "You can't smoke in here; this is a hospital. I'm calling security.''

"You do that.'' Reggie took another long drag off the cigarette and walked a couple steps toward the nurse with the cigarette between his lips, smoke coming out of his nose like a bull in an old cartoon.

"Reggie, did you bring me some ice?'' Susan's voice was soft, barely a whisper.

"Yes, I did, honey,'' he said without taking his eyes off the nurse, "but the nurse thinks it smells in here. I'm trying to help her out.''

The nurse dropped the bag of saline in her hand and ran out the door.

The car jacked up easily, and Reggie changed the tire with swift, easy strokes. All right, that's it, just lower the car. Reggie cinched down the last lug nut. He stood up and looked inside the car. He gave a thumbs-up sign to the woman inside, and she returned the gesture, smiling. She rolled down the window, "You're our hero!''

He pulled the jack out from underneath the car. The woman had her window down all the way now. "How can we thank you?'' The woman asked. The children were quiet, sleeping. "At the least take this,'' she said, and held a roll of bills out toward him.

"No thanks ma'am,'' he said, waving the money away. He looked in the back seat again, at the sleeping boy. "My wife and I have been hoping for a boy.''

"Is your wife pregnant?'' The woman asked.

"Uh-huh, hoping for a boy.''

"Well I hope you get your wish, but they're blessings either way. Gifts from God.''

"Gifts from God,'' Reggie repeated slowly, walking toward his truck.

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