Excerpt from In the Fall They Come Back
forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press
A Kind of Rescue in the Snow
(In this chapter, the narrator, a high school teacher, runs into Leslie Warren, a young woman in the private school where he teaches. She is a senior, eighteen, and in the past has been a lot of trouble at the school. The other teachers have warned the narrator about her. He has not had her as a student yet, but he is aware of her because of her preternatural beauty.)
In late March a terrific snow storm crept up swiftly from southern Virginia and began to cover the ground almost instantly. Mrs. Creighton decided to let school out early. Because of the bad weather we would not drive the buses, so parents had to pick up their children and take them home. Some students had their own cars and left immediately. The others had to wait. Mrs. Creighton let me borrow her big, silver Oldsmobile to go home. “You go ahead, honey,” she said. “Mr. Creighton will come pick me up in his car.”
I was happy to get out of there. A snow day is like a gift from heaven—as if the gods have said, “take the day off.” It is always an unexpected and welcome holiday.
On the way home I got caught in traffic. Only a mile or so from Glenn Acres, everything came to a stop. I sat there in Mrs. Creighton’s car while snow piled up all around us. I heard sirens behind me. There was nowhere to go. A fire truck came alongside the road, in the gravel of the shoulder, its siren blaring, the red lights whirling. It made its way up the highway. Whatever it was, we would not be moving for a long time. I had no cigarettes, no water in the car. The radio didn’t work.
Snow kept falling; it began to collect on the windshield wipers. But it fell straight down so I could see out the side windows. On the windshield, only the path the blades made on the windows was free of snow. I was in the right lane. I looked at the car next to me, a ford Escort, and realized it was Leslie Warren. She seemed to be crying. I watched her for a while, to see what might be the trouble. She did not notice me. Still the traffic did not budge.
I didn’t know whether I should keep looking at her. She was not happy about something. I wanted to ask her if she had a cigarette, but she wouldn’t look my way. She concentrated on the road in front of her, squirming a bit in the seat. I rolled my window down and tried to catch her eye. When she finally saw me, she leaned over and rolled down her window.
“Do you know what it is?” she said.
“No. I think it must be a bad accident.”
She shook her head. “Do you have a radio?”
“It’s not working.”
“I can’t get a traffic report.”
She had tears in her eyes, but she only sounded frustrated. I nodded toward the traffic in front of us and said, “It can’t last much longer.”
Then she looked at me with such sadness I stopped breathing for a second. “I have to pee.” It cost her everything to say that to me. She rolled her window back up and sat back behind the wheel. She looked like she was suffering terribly. She would not look over at me again, but her eyes told me she was fighting with every ounce of strength not to give in. Her jaw was set tightly. Every now and then she would shift angrily in her seat, then recapture whatever it was that let her sit still and bear it.
We were going to be stopped a long time. Most of the drivers up ahead had turned off their cars. Snow fell steadily and with what seemed like purpose—as if the sky was falling in great bursts of little white flakes. It was absolutely silent, except for the few motors still murmuring around us. I heard Leslie scream, “Fuck,” as loud as I’ve ever heard any one scream it.
I was wearing a long, tan overcoat and I realized it might be useful to her. So I got out of my car and stepped in thick snow around the back of hers. People in other cars watched me. I got to her window and knocked gently on it. She had seen me get out and knew I was coming around to talk to her.
I smiled. “I can help.”
She cracked the window.
“Look,” I said. “I got this big coat. You can open your door so nobody in front can see you. I’ll turn my back and hold my coat out so nobody behind us can see. You can pee and then get back in the car.”
She said nothing. She was stirring in the seat, trying not to be dancing in place fighting it. I noticed a pack of Marlboros on the console in her car.
“Seriously,” I said. “I won’t look. I’ll keep my back turned and you can make sure you’re all done and seated in the car again before I turn around. Then all you have to do is give me a cigarette, and that will be that.”
I watched her consider it. Then she put the car in park, opened the door and scooted from under the steering wheel. She did not look at me and she was in a big hurry. She picked two tissues from a small box in her console, and then she took off her jacket and threw it in the back seat. I turned around, unbuttoned my coat and held it out on both sides with my arms stretched as wide as I could, like a cape, and she squatted down and peed there in the little triangle we made between her car, the door, and my coat. It took her a long time. In the silent snow and the muttering cars, I heard her sigh with the letting go of it. Snow collected in my hair and eyebrows. I felt it collecting in the collar of my coat, beginning to leak down my neck.
I don’t know why, but I started laughing. And then she was laughing. We both absolutely howled, without changing position or looking at each other.
When she was done, she got herself back together, jumped behind the wheel and said, “Thank you, Ben. Thank you thank you thank you.” She was still crying but now it was from the laughter. And I loved it that she called me Ben.
I buttoned my coat and turned only slightly toward her. I didn’t want to embarrass her by seeing the stream she had made. She handed me four cigarettes from her pack. “Let me know if you smoke all of these,” she said. “You are a savior.”
I took the cigarettes and made my way back to my car. We sat there for another hour, until it started to get dark. But here’s the thing: The snow continued, the cars remained exactly as they were, and Leslie never once glanced my way. She studied the traffic in front of us, looked down at her console or something on the radio dial, and back up to the traffic. But she absolutely refused to look at me. I didn’t feel bad about it. I think I understood it.
Still, doesn’t the whole episode reveal something about the precarious nature of help and gratitude? I remembered the middle aged woman whose tire I’d changed all those years ago—how she ended up rescuing me. I wondered if Leslie knew how her four cigarettes made it possible for me to endure the boredom of sitting in traffic with no radio and nothing to read.
And why not feel like a savior once in a while? It’s a great feeling. Still, if it weren’t for my helplessly rewarding tendency for rescue, maybe things would have turned out differently.
Robert Bausch is the author of 9 novels and one collection of short stories. He is the 2009 recipient of the Dos Passos Prize in Literature and his newest novel, Far as the Eye Can See, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press in the Spring of 2014.
More from Robert Bausch: http://www.robertbausch.org/