A cricket chirped somewhere in the room. Even in my sleep fogged brain I knew that it wasn't right. Even half awake I soon realized that it was the phone.
"Yeah," I grunted, after I found the phone on the floor by my warm bed. It probably hadn't been moved in days. Hell nobody ever called me anymore. Everyone I knew just emailed me.
"Hey Rick, it is me Willie." When I didn't respond, he went on. "You know, Willie, the tow truck driver?"
"Yeah sure Willie, what can I do for you?" I didn't add that this best be good, but I was sure as hell thinking it.
"Rick, I hate to call this late, but it is kind of an emergency."
"What time is it Willie?" I asked.
"Just about midnight, it's not really all that late."
"Willie, if you don't have a damn good reason for calling, it is too late to call." I hoped I sounded impatient, because I sure as hell was.
"Rick, it's like this, I know you always need money, and I know you don't have any job to go to tomorrow, so I thought of you."
"What did you think of me doing at midnight?" I was losing what little patience I had with Willie.
"Well, this lady needs a ride over to Ashley. I don't know anybody else who would come out."
"How many have said no before me Willie?" I knew I wasn't his first choice. I hardly knew Willie.
"A couple, John Thomas suggested you might do it."
Willie was at least honest, once I penned him down. John Thomas was my brother. I am sure he thought I needed the money desperately. I needed the sleep more, but then I was already awake. I might as well listen.
"Who is the Lady, in need of the ride?" I couldn't have sounded happy at the prospect of leaving my warm bed for a drive all the way to Ashley.
"The lady has one of those fancy Mercedes sedans. She thought it was a snow plow I guess. She ran it in a ditch about a mile from the highway. The highway patrol called me to pull her out." He paused a long moment.
"Are the roads bad again Willie?" I asked it knowing that it had been snowing heavily when I fell into bed several hours earlier.
"They got about a foot in some places. Rick, she ain't even got snow tires on the Mercedes. It is gonna be laid up a while anyway. Looks as though the fender is gonna have to be pried off the front tire. That tire is gonna have to be replaced. Anyway she says she has to get to Ashley right away."
"Why right away Willie? There ain't nothing over there worth rushing off to."
"I think it has something to do with her kid. She has a kid in that special school over there." Willie replied.
That 'special school' was some kind of private boarding school for the rich and gifted. At least that is how their brochure described it.
"So where are you now?" I asked it with resignation in my voice.
"I am down at your brother's garage. We are sittin' here with the engine running trying to stay warm, so how about hurrying on down."
"Put her on the phone Willie." I demanded it because Willie wanted to get rid of her at all cost. He wouldn't tell her the bad news.
"Hello," the soft voice said confidently.
"Ma'am, my name is Richard Blaine. I will be happy to drive you to Ashley, if I can get you there. With that much snow on the road it is possible we will have to turn around before we reach Ashley."
"You do have a jeep?" she interrupted.
"I have a four wheel drive, but ma'am that is no guarantee that I can get you through. If the snow has piled up in drifts, all the four wheel drives in the world won't get us through."
"Is that likely?" she asked.
"Not really, but you should know that it is possible."
"I appreciate your honesty sir, but I just have to get to Ashley."
"I can appreciate that ma'am, but it is after midnight. The school will most likely be locked down. We are going to get there around two or three in the morning. You most likely are going to have to wait until they reopen anyway. Willie can drive you over to the motel by the interstate. We can get an early start in the morning. We could be there when the office opens."
"The Headmaster is expecting me. I am sure he will allow me to enter."
"Very well, I hope you are dressed warm. You never know what might happen on the way over there."
"I assure you that I will be fine."
"You know best," I replied. "Tell Willie that I will be down in about twenty minutes."
"Can't you come sooner?" I had a feeling she didn't care for sitting alone in Willie's truck. She was as safe as a woman could be. She just didn't know that.
"Ma'am, I have to dress and drive down there. On these roads it is the best I can do." What I didn't tell her was that I didn't even want to get out of my warm bed. I only agreed because J.T. would be some kind of pissed, if I didn't. Since he owned, the other half of the two room shack where I lived, I didn't want to piss him off. J.T. had never asked for rent on his half of the place, and I wanted to keep it that way. He didn't need the money, but he would have been within his rights to demand it.
The fire in the old coal stove was still burning so the shack wasn't miserably cold. I was forced to move quickly into the room, which would be called a multi purpose room in a real house. The room was a kitchen, living room, and workspace for me. The only difference between that night, and the nights when my mother and father had raised J.T. and me, was that by the time I got Willie's call, the was running water in the house. J.T. and I had installed it after daddy died. Momma had it for a few years before she also passed away.
J.T. had wanted to toss the coal stove and go to oil after daddy passed. But momma wouldn't hear of it.
"Your Daddy was a coal miner all his life and we ain't gonna do nothing to blacken his memory." She never realized how strange that sounded. After she passed away, the place stood empty for a few years before I returned home.
I ran a pan of water from the large copper container perched above the stove. It was set just high enough off the stove to keep the water warm without bringing it to a boil. Every morning I would fill it with the short piece of plastic garden hose I would attach to the kitchen sink. It was just part of my morning routine.
The morning routine usually lasted all morning. I would empty the warm ashes into the large metal tray under the stove. After the stove was clear, I built a new fire then filled the large water heater. While it heated, I boiled water in an electric kettle for coffee. I would usually sat by the stove as it began to heat. I drank the coffee waiting for the stove to heat the room.
As the room became warmer I would become more active. I did the things I had planned the night before until the room and the water were warm. Then I would draw off a fair amount of the water to mix with cold water. The mixture was created inside a small camper type bathtub. It was too small for me to sit in but I could use the plastic garden watering can to give myself a shower.
At midnight the best I could manage was a thorough washing with the lukewarm water from the kettle. I did that while I waited for the water in the teakettle to boil. I poured the boiling water into a plastic funnel, which was lined with a paper towel. At the bottom of the towel was a small spoon of coffee grounds. The funnel sat over a chrome-plated carafe. I had purchased it from a restaurant that had gone belly up. Businesses seemed to come and go more often in our depressed coal mining area than in other places.
I knew there wouldn't be any place to eat for a while, so I toasted two bagels in the small quartz toaster oven. I ate them with jelly while I drank the coffee. It was going to make me late, but then hell it was going to be a long night regardless.
I drove down the mountain in the falling snow. I pulled into my brother's auto repair shop after only ten minutes. I was no more than ten minutes late. Willie looked more than a little upset. Ten minutes in a warm truck should not have made that much difference to him, but it seemed to have done so.
Willie opened the door on his side of the truck. He looked relieved to be out of it, even if it meant climbing down into the cold and falling snow. I noted that he wore rubber boots. Those had to be cold as hell, but still he had been inside the truck. He should not look so angry.
"Would one of you help me with my bags please?" the woman asked.
"Give her a hand, will you Rick. I have had about all of her I can stand." He didn't even bother trying to whisper. He didn't seem to mind her hearing. My guess was that they had already had words.
"Sure, hold on just a second Ma'am," I said.
"Mr. Blaine., it is very cold out here could we hurry please." The words were not offensive, but her tone most definitely was. I was already sorry I had agreed to the job.
"Willie, did you two settle on my money?" I asked it before I did anything else.
"Nope Rick, I just wanted her off my hands." He again seemed to want her to hear his opinion.
I shook my head at him. I walked to the rear of her car parked by the door of the shop. Since she had the trunk open there was a light burning. It lit her face. I could tell little, since she wore her hair under a knit cap. Her body was covered by the full length down coat she wore. Under the quilted coat, she could look like a model or like a blimp. It was just impossible to tell in the dark.
.... There is more of this story ...