Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Dead Man's Curve

 

 

 

That morning the crew started to cut up on the big fields near the ridge.  It actually took Casey a full half hour just to get from where the combines had loaded his truck to the hardtop road.

 

At the hardtop he stopped his truck and looked across where he’d come from.

 

Well, there sure wasn’t anything like this back at his father’s farm in Iowa, the wheat field sweeping away up toward the ridge, and, then, the most amazing thing of all, beyond the ridge, way beyond the ridge, the white cone of Mt. Hood rising out of the earth.  All that ice and snow and cold.

 

In a way, he couldn’t believe what he saw.  That perhaps it was some kind of illusion.  Some kind of make believe.

 

A cough and burp of static on the two-way radio.

 

“Hey, Casey, Baby!”

 

That was Chester, the oldest guy on the crew who drove the new, bright red Jimmy truck.

 

“You there, Casey, boy?”

 

Casey pulled the mike from its holder next to the steering wheel and pushed the button.

 

“You got him!”

 

“What you doing stopped like that?”

 

“I’m not stopped.”

 

“What you talking about, Casey, Dacey?”

 

Casey looked to the far end of the field and could see Chester’s Jimmy crawling toward the three combines, all spread out in a row and raising a cloud of chaff.

 

Another cough and burp of static.

 

“Guess old Casey’s taking a leak.” Casey recognized Roger’s voice, one of the combine operators.

 

“Can’t he do it in his truck?”  Somebody else.  Another operator.

 

“Only if he carries a jar.”

 

“Well, now, Casey, you never mind these turkeys.  You have a good trip!”  That was Chester again.

 

“Thanks!” said Casey

 

He reached over and clicked off the radio.  He’d be out of range soon anyway.

 

* * *

 

 

Actually the hardtop ran along parallel to the ridge for the first five or six miles before the first turn where it started twisting down into the Columbia River Gorge and finally to the grain elevators in Wallis.  Even before he got to that turn Casey met two empty wheat trucks coming back from the elevators.  Both those trucks slowed down and pulled over giving Casey plenty of room.  That was the rule of the road:  Empty up-mountain trucks gave way to loaded down-mountain trucks.  Casey waved to both drivers although he didn’t know either of them since they worked for other ranches up here.

 

When he got to that first turn Casey double-clutched the truck into a lower gear— probably before he needed to because you couldn’t just rely on the brakes going down-mountain.  The way you really held a loaded truck back was by downshifting. And, in a way, well, more than in a way, it was frightening going down.  Because, for one thing, there weren’t any guard rails.  Not like on a normal road.  You were carrying God knew how much weight and on one side everything just dropped away.

 

That’s why Casey downshifted early.

 

And for that sharpest curve—the drivers called it Dead Man’s Curve—Casey went all the way down into his first compound, the engine singing up in high revs.

 

He was just coming out of the last part of Dead Man’s Curve when he saw Slim in his green Dodge truck over against the cliff face waiting.  Slim was one of the three drivers in Casey’s crew and he must have seen Casey coming.  They waved to each other, and once Casey was past he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw Slim pull out.

 

As the hardtop flattened and Casey began to move up through the gears, the cliff face gave way to sagebrush and then the sagebrush gave way to the narrow, green valley which stretched along a creek all the way into Wallis.

 

Probably Wallis had once been an important town, but now most of the businesses on either side of its long, wide dirt main street were boarded up, only a gas station/garage and Dolly’s goods store were still open.  The grain elevators, of course, were the center of everything now.  Not in the sense that they were in the center of town.  They weren’t.  They stood out on the edge next to the railway spur where the sagebrush began again.

 

The hardtop joined one end of the dirt, main street and Casey fell in behind two other trucks heading for the elevator.  He followed them to the little road that went over the railway spur and past some parked railway cars and stopped in the line of other trucks waiting to be unloaded.

 

As Casey turned off his motor the driver of the truck in front of him, a middle-aged guy wearing a baseball cap, walked back from his truck to Casey’s cab.  “Yeah, yeah,” the guy said, putting his foot up on Casey’s running board and taking off his cap.  “Yeah, yeah,” he repeated, wiping his forehead with a red bandana handkerchief he’d pulled from his pocket.  “Regular hot one today.”

 

Casey could tell that this man didn’t come from a real ranch.  Not a big one up on top.  Probably he was a hired hand for a farm down here in the flatlands.

 

“Yeah, really hot,” said Casey.

 

“That’s for sure,” said the guy.  “Say . . . ,” he began, but he was interrupted by the sound of the other trucks in line starting their motors to move forward.  “Whoa!” said the guy replacing his cap, winking at Casey and going back to get in his truck.

 

It took about five minutes to empty each truck, and finally when it was Casey’s turn he drove up into the semi-darkness of the interior of the elevator onto the scale and stopped when the man recording the weights signaled him.  The man wrote something on a piece of paper and then shouted out, “Okay!

 

Casey set his brakes, swung out of the cab, ran around to the rear of the truck and pulled at the panel door which let the first of the wheat flow out into the hopper below.  Then Casey ran back to the cab, pulled the knob to put the lift in gear, revved up his engine and watched for the signal from the man.  When he got it he pulled the lever which was down beside his seat, turned his head, and watched the bed of the truck lift off the truck’s frame.

 

“Yo!” shouted the man.

 

Casey eased the lever back and waited until the man shouted again, “Okay!”

 

This time Casey pulled the lever all the way back, revved the motor for the last time, then swung out of the cab and ran back to the rear of the truck where the end of the bed was almost touching the grill of the hopper.  He pulled a broom from its place on the outside of the bed, swung himself and the broom up over the side, and bracing himself against the tilt of the bed, swept the remaining wheat out the open panel.

 

“Done!” he shouted swinging himself out.

 

As he got back in the truck and pushed the lever forward to let the bed of the truck back down, the man came up and handed him a piece of paper.  That was for the records and Casey made sure he put it away in the glove compartment.  Then he heard the clunk and felt the truck shudder as the bed of the truck rejoined the frame.  The man was already waving him forward to make way for the next truck.

 

* * *

 

 

Once he had unloaded it was as if he was driving a totally different truck.  Well, maybe part of that sensation was his coming into the bright sunlight after the semi-darkness of the elevator building.  But, more, it was how easy it was now to turn the steering wheel and how he didn’t even have to use compound gear anymore to get going.  Or how he only needed to use the brakes to slow down or stop.

 

In any case, he always celebrated this part of the trip by going down Main Street to Dolly’s.

 

“Well, hello, there, young man!” said Dolly sitting where she always sat behind the counter in her rocking chair.  She reached up and turned down the soap opera which had been blasting out on her radio.  “You men about done up there?”

 

At least Casey guessed “Dolly” was her name.  Because she had to be the owner of the store.  Or what was left of it.  Probably the store had once been a thriving “goods” establishment selling all manner of things back when Wallis was a real town.  But now all you saw were just leftovers from better days, a coiled garden hose, an old, wood-burning stove, a basket of work gloves, different kinds of kerosene lanterns, bags of cement, things like that.  But, thank God, she also had a soft drink tank in the front of the store.

 

“No, not done at all,” said Casey plunging his hand in through the chunks of ice and pulling up a Pepsi.  “Got a lot more to do.”

 

“Well, heaven’s sake,” said Dolly.  Then she laughed.  She often laughed at things that didn’t seem at all funny.

 

“Yeah,” said Casey snapping the cap of the bottle off in the opener, “I figure we’re only about half done.”

 

“Lord, lord,” said Dolly.  She laughed again.

 

“Yeah,” said Casey.  “Big job.”

 

Dolly laughed.

 

“Well, gotta go,” said Casey putting ten cents on the counter.

 

“Don’t you work too hard.”

 

“Me?  Don’t worry about me working too hard.  You don’t have to worry about that.”

 

She laughed again.

 

Outside Casey swung up into the cab of his truck and took a big swig from the Pepsi.

 

He sipped at the Pepsi all the while driving away from Wallis up that green valley.  Actually the green only went up a ways on the sides of the hills until the sagebrush took over.  And the further he got from Wallis and the higher he went, the closer the sagebrush came to the road until finally there was nothing but sagebrush.  Then the sagebrush gave way to the cliff and the real climb began.

 

He was just slowing way down for Dead Man’s Corner and had tipped the Pepsi back for the very last swig when it happened:  Chester’s new, red Jimmy, its grill all bright and shiny, heading right at him and coming too fast.

 

After it was all over he never found the Pepsi bottle.  But he remembered jerking his truck toward the cliff face and somehow Chester missing him.

 

Casey stopped his truck next to the cliff and set the brake.

 

He knew, he knew beyond question that Chester and his truck and his load of wheat had gone off over the edge.

 

But he didn’t run back to look right away.  Rather he sat in his cab.  Holding onto the steering wheel.  Tight.  He should have run back and looked.  He knew that.  Because maybe Chester was still alive down there.

 

But he just sat.

 

For how long?  Casey didn’t know.  Maybe only 30 seconds.  Maybe a minute.  Maybe a lot more.  Maybe only 5 seconds.

 

What he did remember was opening the door of his truck, standing out on the running board and then stepping down with one foot to the hardtop, then stepping down with the other foot to the hardtop.  He also remembered that when he closed the truck door the sound of the door echoed back and forth against the cliff.  After that, no other sound at all.  Nothing.  The canyon was filled with silence.

 

Chester, thought Casey into that silence.  Chester had been in that truck.

 

Finally, after five seconds, or a minute or two minutes or whatever, Casey got hold of himself and started walking back toward where the Jimmy had gone off.

 

But he didn’t walk along the edge of the hardtop looking down.   He walked in its middle.

 

Partly he did this because he already knew what he would see:  the truck upside down, the wheat all spilled out and yellow against the sagebrush; and Chester either still in the truck or laying out beside the truck.

 

Finally he came to the place where the truck couldn’t have stayed on the road anymore.

 

Dear God, he said to himself.

 

He went over to the edge and looked down.

 

Nothing.

 

That is, nothing but the canyon falling away and the sagebrush on either side of the dry creek bed below.

 

Maybe further along the road, thought Casey.  Maybe Chester had managed to hold the truck a little longer.

 

So Casey walked along the hardtop, this time out on the edge, all the time looking down.

 

But, again, nothing.

 

Just that dry creek bed down there.

 

Was it possible?

 

Casey looked ahead down the hardtop to where he knew it flattened out and later where it would join the green valley all the way to the grain elevators at Wallis.  Then he turned around and looked back up the hardtop to where he had parked his truck.  He saw the cliff face rising above his truck.

 

And what was this?  Up there?  Towering above the cliff?  Way, way above it?

 

The high, white cone of Mt. Hood.  The snow.  The ice.  The cold.

 

 

Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 stories published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review, and The Prairie Schooner.  Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, and twelve of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.  He was a finalist for a collection of short stories in the Iowa Publication Awards for Short Fiction, the George Garrett Fiction Prize for Best Book of Short Stories or Short Novel, and the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction.