4, Willis & Nelle
Nelle stood looking out the window behind the cash register, anxiously watching for the school bus. She couldn’t believe the school hadn’t let the kids out early. There had been warnings all day; many businesses had closed early, or let some of their employees leave before the storm hit with full force. And now, of course, full force was here and the school buses were still on the road. She could barely see the gas pumps, let alone the road where the bus was toting most precious cargo.
The bells that were hung on a nail on the door into the garage bays rang, and she heard Willis’ heavy-booted steps on the old wood floor.
“Are your feet clean?” she asked without turning around.
“My feet are clean,” he said, “but my boots are covered with snow.”
“Hunh!” she turned around to glare at him, but he was laughing at her, so she smiled back.
“Stop staring out the window,” he told her. “Those bus drivers know how to drive in this. How many times have we ever had to pull a bus out of a ditch?”
“There’s always a first time,” she faltered, knowing that he was right; worry did nothing but tie her stomach up in knots.
“Look, here it comes,” he said, motioning out the window. “You worried for nothing again.”
The bus made it around the bend and pulled into the lot around the gas pumps and waited for Toby Jobe, age 12, to safely cross in front. When he cleared the front of the bus, he put his head down and ran across the lot as fast as he could run in four inches of heavy snow. He skidded to a stop and burst into the door with bells jangling and the excitement of a kid in a snowstorm. “I bet there won’t be school tomorrow,” he shouted breathlessly. “Can we stay up late tonight and watch a movie on the VCR? And have popcorn? You know, stay up ‘till maybe midnight?”
Nelle laughed the delighted laugh of a mother, charmed by her son’s enthusiasm for the storm, which she had only been thinking of as threatening and dangerous. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she said agreeably. “Your dad will probably get called out on the tow truck — a night like this is sure to have people in ditches and fields. It might be a good way to pass the time while he is gone.”
“So you won’t worry,” Willis added. “I’m surprised no one has called yet.”
“Oh, can I go with you, Dad?” Toby pleaded.
“No,” Nelle said firmly. “I need you here to help man the pumps and keep them clear of snow.”
“You can use the tractor to plow around them,” Willis added to sweeten the deal a bit.
Toby turned to look at his dad in amazement. “I can?”
“You’ve been practicing. I think you’re ready. Come on. I’ll give you a quick lesson, before the phone starts ringing for the tow truck.” Willis turned to go back out into the garage bays; Toby grabbed a Three Musketeers and ran out to follow his dad.
“Hey!” Nelle shouted, “that’s not your after-school snack.”
“Energy!” Toby yelled back as he raced out the door after Willis.
Nelle shook her head to herself. Watching his chubby frame run out the door, she wished they didn’t have to have candy bars at the counter. Or alternately, she wished she could lay down the law more forcefully to her only son.
Just a few minutes after Nelle heard the Cub Cadet start up, the dedicated phone line for the towing company rang. They had just installed it two months ago when they had finally been approved as an official towing company for Triple A. Since they had taken the plunge, business had tripled as well. Willis was gone so often on towing trips, they were considering hiring a mechanic to fill in at the garage for inspections.
“Jobe’s Towing,” Nelle answered. She picked up the pen by the phone and scribbled on the pad. Blue Dodge Caravan in ditch. Tin Can Hollow Rd. 1 mile north of Hattiesville just off Rte. 10.
Before they had been approved for Triple A, there were hundreds of details and requirements — the main one being a Triple A approved two-way radio system. It included a base for the office, and three handsets: one for the truck, one for the base, and one for Willis in the garage. Unfortunately it didn’t include anything for outside, and that’s where he and Toby were right now — out back where Willis was showing Toby the finer points of plowing the sidewalk to the house. Nelle pulled on her jacket and stomped around the side of the garage. She waved her arms like a crazy woman, and Willis finally turned and saw her. He motioned to Toby to keep plowing and started up the nicely plowed sidewalk throwing salt as he walked.
“I expected it,” he said as he came inside. “How far away am I going?”
“Just a mile north of Hattiesville off Rte. 10.” Nelle was ladling some chili from the crockpot into Willis’ thermos. “You’ll just be able to drink this chili right from the cup,” she said. “But here’s a spoon just in case. And here’s another thermos of coffee. It’s the red plaid one. So you won’t get surprised.”
“Thanks babe. I may be home after this one, I may not. But you’ll know because you’ll probably take the call.” He grinned. “Don’t hold the movie for me.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Be careful.”
He grunted. “I always am. Quit worryin’.” And he was out the door into the garage, starting up the tow truck. It was still snowing hard and getting dark.
Willis had just dropped the blue Caravan at the dealership in Hattiesville and was filling out paperwork and drinking his chili when the radio crackled. He sat in the dealership parking lot to get his next instructions from Nelle. As he was listening to her, a police car went screaming by — as fast as it could safely go in a blizzard. It was followed by an firetruck and an ambulance with lights flashing.
“Nell,” he said, “slow down. Am I going where the flashing red lights are headed?”
“Probably,” she said. “It’s a bad accident involving a semi-truck and some other cars out beyond Price’s Corners. You know, Digby’s Bend?” Her voice was broken up over the static. Bad weather affected the radio reception too.
“Firetruck, ambulance, and police car just went by. And there goes another police car. Okay, I’m on my way. I’ll toot the horn as I drive by.”
“Willis,” she said, “Police scanner says it’s bad. Emergency vehicles — both towns headed — and — Medivac too.”
“You’re breaking up,” he shouted into the receiver. “Love you.”
He switched off the radio, and pulled the wrecker out on to the main road. He could feel the adrenalin starting. Just something about the crackling of those radio waves and the emergency lights and sirens. He didn’t need any coffee now. He’d save it for later.
As he downshifted for the hill up out of Hattiesville, he tried to think of some scenarios. Most likely the semi-truck had jackknifed or slid across the road and other cars had smashed in to it. Who knows how many? He could barely see twenty feet in front of him with the snow swirling around. A driver could be upon an accident and never be able to stop in time on these roads. His tow truck wasn’t big enough to pull out an eighteen wheeler; he must be being called in to help the regular cars. Hell, he thought, there could be ten or more off the road, this being dinner time, and people going home from work…
He was approaching the house, so well before he passed it, he laid on the horn. A car was parked at the gas pumps, but no one was in sight, so Nelle must be inside with a customer. There was Toby, standing at the door waving. He grinned, and laid on the horn in a quick series of short beeps.
This new tow truck business was going to be good, he thought. The only downside was the odd hours. But soon Toby would be old enough to go with him, to keep him company at least, and maybe even help some. He was a good, strong kid and caught on to things fast. As long as they could keep him busy and working so he didn’t get in with the wrong boys. He was thinking of trying out for junior-high football next year in 7th grade and Willis had been thinking of helping out the team as an assistant, but with this towing schedule, he wasn’t sure he could commit to it.
Was it his imagination, or was the snow letting up a bit?
Nope, must have just been less wind down in this valley. He started up the hill toward Prices Corners General Store. He was glad they had gotten rid of their gas pumps when the new regulations went in. Leah and Ben had gone in for the food stuff in a big way, which was good, because now they weren’t really competitors any more. It left Jobe’s Auto & Truck Service as the only place with gas on 592. And now there was Jobe’s Towing, too. Life was good. If only it would stop snowing…
Hah, he thought to himself, I should be glad it’s storming, that means more business. But like anyone who is out in a blizzard, mostly, they just want to be home where it’s warm and bright, and Willis was no exception. And he had a bad feeling that it would be a long night.
Red lights and flares flashed up ahead, and Willis inched his truck to a crawl. Volunteer firemen were setting up barriers across the road, and some other volunteers were waving flash lights to direct traffic down Churchill Road. A state police officer was standing by his car with the door open, talking in his radio. Willis pulled as far off to the side of the road as he could, set the brake, and jumped down from the truck to get his orders.
The state police officer hung up his radio and motioned Willis over. Officer Kowalczyk. Willis didn’t know him, but offered his hand. “Willis Jobe from Jobe’s Towing,” he said. “Where do you want me?”
“Here’s what I know. The semi came down the hill going west and around the bend, put on his brakes and either lost control or started to skid off the road, we’re not sure. Seems like his load shifted and jackknifed; anyway the rig is across the road on its side, and the driver was ejected. Probably dead instantly. A Ford Escort following the truck, couldn’t stop in time and slid into the truck. Man driving, woman with him, she’s still trapped in the car. The EMTs and the fire department guys are trying to get her out right now. On the other side, there are several cars off in ditches just trying to avoid the accident. Doesn’t seem to be any serious injuries there. On this side, there’s just two cars in the ditch. More traffic coming out of Adamsford this time of night. You should go down and pull those cars out. I think you’re the only tow truck on this side of the accident. You might have to come back and get the car that’s being worked on — we’ll have to see. For now, just take care of those cars in the ditch, and see what they need. No one can get through. If they need to get to Adamsford, and their cars are driveable, you’ll have to bring them back up here to go down Churchill Rd. If you need me, call County Control, and they’ll get me the message. Okay?”
“Got it, Officer.”
Willis hopped up in to his truck and pulled out slowly. The volunteer guys had already moved the barrier for him. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Pastor Stewart talking with Matt Price and another state policeman. He waved, but they didn’t see him.
If I were a praying man, I’d pray right now, he thought, hoping that Matt and the Pastor would take up his slack.
Hours later — it was 2:30 according to his watch — Willis pulled the tow truck into the garage. He slumped his head on the steering wheel. Both the soup thermos and the coffee thermos were empty on the floor. The storm had blown itself away to the east and left eight inches of heavy snow in its wake. What a night. He’d done accidents before, and he knew the routine. You just buck up and do your job as quickly and efficiently as you can… But he’d never seen anything this bad. He hoped Nelle was asleep, so he didn’t have to tell her about it.
He went outside to stand for a minute in the silence and just breathe. The fury of a few hours ago was gone, and the sky was filled with winter constellations. Willis knew a few of them — Orion, the W with the Greek name — he concentrated. Cassiopeia, that was it. Proud of himself for remembering, he looked for the North Star. It was hidden behind the hill across the road. No North Star to guide him tonight. He thought of the poor trucker, dead instantly, never to see the North Star or his wife or a beautiful sunny day, ever again. Snatched away in a moment. Nope. We are never guaranteed another day, another minute. He could have a heart attack right now, out here by the garage. He’d better go in right now and kiss his sweet Nelle and Toby… This is what Nelle means about being ready to meet God. It’s probably why she’s always after him to go to church.
He looked up at the stars. God, if you’re up there, if you’re real, give me a sign. If I could just know for sure… He waited, half expecting a strike of lightning or something. Then he shook his head. I’m being crazy — this night has me hallucinating. As he walked around the side of the garage and down to the house, the living room light came on. Nelle opened the front door and waited for him. “It must have been bad,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “The worst I’ve ever seen.”
“Willis honey, don’t tell me if you don’t want to. Are you exhausted, or do you need a cup of tea to wind yourself down?”
“I’m exhausted,” he said. “The picture of it is burned into my brain, and I don’t think I’ll ever get it erased.”
She hugged him. “Come to bed, and I’ll give you a back rub.”
The house was hushed and dark; Willis leaned his body into Nelle’s and rested his head on her shoulder. “Just in case you don’t know it, I love you,” he whispered.
Outside where he had just been standing, a dozen shooting stars exploded in the dark winter sky.