Comfort & Joy
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I go to the window, just to be sure. Outside, the storm has paused; clouds squat above the trees; the wind blows leaves across the deck and pushes at the trees as if they are bendable toys. But it isn’t raining.
The truck is gone.
I look around for a note, knowing I won’t find one. I’m a guest. Why would they let me know where they’ve gone or when they’ll be back? Still, I can’t help feeling disappointed.
I stand there a long time. Finally, I go to the phone and pick it up. The receiver feels cold against my ear.
There is still no dial tone.
I feel a rush of relief, but it doesn’t last long. As much as I’d like to, I can’t stay here, alone, hiding out from the world, my world. My Christmas gift to Stacey will be a phone call. Just that, a call, but it will be a start. Who knows where we’ll go from there?
So I go to my room and get my borrowed blue sweater from the closet, then I find an umbrella behind the registration desk—just in case—and I’m off.
Wind blows down the road and whistles through the trees. The forest is darker than usual, as is the sky.
I follow the winding black ribbon of asphalt that parallels the lake. Leaves and debris skid down the pavement, blow past me. Brown water gurgles in the ditches.
I angle against the wind, trudging forward, sloshing through dips and puddles from last night’s storm. Ahead of me, the road shimmers with water.
At first, I walk at a pretty good pace. I’m in decent shape, after all, I do aerobics on a quasi-regular basis, and I’ve lost weight in the past week. I feel thinner, anyway. I haven’t actually stepped on a scale.
Every bend in the road promises to be “The One.” I keep expecting to see the town spread out before me, a tiny tiara of holiday lights tucked in to all this stormy darkness.
But every corner leads to another straightaway. This old highway goes on and on.
I am losing steam, which seems odd because my breath is a series of white clouds, shooting out in front of me. The steps get harder. It’s cold. Wind scratches my face, tugs at my hair.
I can’t believe I walked this far after the crash. Then, it had felt like nothing, this trek through the ancient woods. In truth, it’s miles.
How could I have done it?
On and on I go, until I truly begin to consider turning back.
I am all alone out here. In the time I’ve been walking, no cars have passed me, no headlights have cut down the pavement to show me the way back, even for a fifty-five mile-per-hour moment. Black clouds hang ominously low in the sky, make this afternoon almost dark.
Up ahead, there is another bend in the road.
“That’s it,” I say aloud. I will turn around if town isn’t around the corner.
Then, in the distance, I hear cars.
The walking is easier again, with the end in sight. I pick up my pace a little, until I’m breathless when I finally come to town.
I leave the two-lane highway and turn onto a pretty little tree-lined street called Azalea. I have gone fifty feet or so when it hits me.
The lights are out here, too.
The town is dark; buildings seem smaller without light, bunched together, as if they’re huddling to keep warm.
In the gray patch of the park, I see an old-fashioned phone booth on the corner. It’s something I haven’t seen in a while. In my part of California, the world has gone cellular, moved on from these glass-walled booths.
I duck inside, close the door behind me. No light comes on at the motion. I know before I pick up the phone what I will find.
It’s dead. There is no phonebook hanging from a rusty chain.
When I step outside the booth, thunder grumbles across the slate-colored sky. Lightning flashes strobe-like, electrifying the sleepy town for a second. Then it starts to rain.
I grab my umbrella and pop it open. Rain is thunderous on the plastic dome over my head. I run across the park.
In town, the eaves protect me. I walk close to the buildings, seeing even in the shadows how well tended everything is. Holiday decorations fill every window. At a diner called the “Dew Drop In,” I see a “CLOSED: No Juice” sign that makes me smile in spite of how cold and miserable I am.
At the end of the street, I come to a four-way stop and turn right because the eaves protect me.
Two blocks later I see the impossible: a gas station with its lights on. They must have a generator.
I rush across the wet, slick street and go to the door. Inside, it’s a mini-mart with rows and rows of brightly colored merchandise. The lights are so bright I have to squint.
Behind the counter, a man is reading something from a manila folder and making notes on a clipboard of some kind. A slim gray cell phone sits on the counter by his right hand.
“Thank God,” I say, tossing my dripping umbrella to the linoleum floor. “This storm is crazy, isn’t it?”
He looks up at me, obviously surprised that anyone is out in this weather. He is thin-faced, with elegantly cut white hair and blue eyes that seem surprisingly sharp for a man of his age. “There’s no way to know how long it’ll last.”
It’s the same thing the weathermen always say. I smile at him. “I need to use your phone.”
He stares at me oddly and taps at the hearing aid in his left ear. “Broken bones?”
“Not bones. Phone. I need to make a call. Collect.”
“Can you hear me?” he says, leaning closer. “It’s broken.”
“I hear you,” I say, trying to keep the impatience out of my voice. I’m tired, soaking wet, and freezing cold. It would be easy to snap, so I take a deep breath and try to smile. “I know the electricity is out.” I tap his cell phone. “May I use it? Please? I need to talk to my sister.”
At that, he smiles, showing me a hint of flawless white dentures, and tugs at his ear, which—surprisingly—sports an earring that looks like a tiny diamond. “Talking is good.”
The poor man is deaf as a post. If I weren’t freezing and desperate, I’d be polite. As it is, I say, “Yes, it is. Look. I’m using your phone. I hope you don’t mind.”
“The mind is a delicate thing.”
“That’s helpful. Thank you.” I reach for his phone. Every second, as I flip it open and punch in the numbers, I expect him to stop me, but he doesn’t. He simply goes back to his reading.
The phone rings.
At each bleating ring, I tense up a little more. Finally, the machine clicks on. It’s Stacey’s voice. Happy holidays. Stacey and Thom aren’t in right now, but if you’ll leave a message, we’ll call you back. Thanks!
I’m momentarily nonplussed by the casual linking of their names. Staceyandthom. Thomandstacey. Now they’re one word, just like we used to be.
“Uh . . . Hi, Stace. It’s Joy. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry. I’ll call you on Christmas Day.” It seems like I should have more to say, but nothing comes to me. “Bye.”
I hang up and hand the phone back to the attendant. “Thanks.”
He peers at me. “You can keep talking to her.”
“No, thanks. I’m done.”
Smiling, I grab my umbrella and leave the warm light of the gas station.
It’s not until I’m back in the park, trudging through the now blinding rain that I think: I should have asked him for a ride home. This is Small Town, U.S.A. People do favors for each other here. I turn back, walk down the street. Thunder roars again; the rain hammers me.
In the violence of the storm, I’m confused, though, disoriented; I can’t find the gas station again.
I have always had a crappy sense of direction.
With a sigh, I head for the park, and then find my way onto the old highway. My first thought is: this is the way home.
Then I remember.
My home sits on a pretty little street in a not-so-pretty section of Bakersfield, the same city where my pregnant sister and ex-husband now live together.
What will I say to them?
J ust when I think the weather can’t get any worse, it starts to snow.
In an instant, this stormy landscape changes into a place of magical, impossible light. The clouds lift, a bright moon peers out from above and casts the road in silvery light. The driving rain transforms itself into a shower of tiny cotton balls, drifting lazily downward.
Everything stills; the world holds its breath. The gurgling water in the ditch turns into a child’s laugh. I can smell the pine trees again, and the rich scent of wet earth.
Unfortunately, the sudden beauty has a wicked bite.
Inside my suddenly inadequate sweater, I shiver and try to keep warm. My breath clouds everything, makes me feel as if I’m walking through a deep fog.
Once I start shivering, I can’t stop. I must look like an escaped mental patient, running from the electrical shock room, dancing along the crumbling edge of the road. I am so tired; all I want to do is stop, but I know that if I do, I’ll fall, and maybe I won’t get up. My eyelids are heavy, my fingers and toes sting with cold. My cheeks are so icy they feel hot; every snowflake burns my skin. Only a woman raised in California would have gone for a walk on a day like this.
“Don’t th-think like that,” I say aloud, trying to sound stern and failing miserably. My teeth are chattering like an Evinrude. I need to focus on good thoughts.
Like the lodge, dressed in its holiday finery, with Bobby and Daniel on the deck, waiting for me.
Are they home? I wonder. Have they noticed that I am gone? Are they worried?
How long has it been since someone waited at home for me, worried about me?
Even with all that has happened; all she has done, the truth is there, buried beneath the resentment: I miss her.
She is the one I want to tell about my time in the rainforest, and the man and boy about whom I’ve come to care.
I guess a plane crash and being lost in a snowstorm will show you things.
I am caught so deeply in my own thoughts that it takes me a moment to hear the noise behind me.
It is an engine. Seconds later, I see the twin beams of headlights come up behind me. In their glow, I see the snow falling all around me.
I stop, turn.
It is Daniel’s red pickup, chugging down the road. They are like something out of a dream, a blur of red in a snowy white world. I’m not entirely sure it’s real. Perhaps I’ve imagined my saviors.
The truck pulls up beside me and stops. The blue passenger door creaks, then bangs open.
Bobby is scooted all the way to the edge of the bench seat. His small face is scrunched with worry and too colorful somehow in this hazy world and half-light. “Joy?”
I try to answer, to smile even, as if this is nothing, but all I hear is the sound of my own teeth chattering. Suddenly I’m crying like a baby. That’s when I realize how scared I was that I would be simply lost out here, all alone again. No wonder I thought of Stacey.
“Help her, Dad!” Bobby cries out. “She’s freezing!”
Daniel whips open his door and jumps out.
“I’m . . . fine,” I say, sounding like a jackhammer on concrete. I grab the top of the truck door—the metal is so cold it burns me—and climb into the seat. I don’t want him to know how cold I am, how foolish I was. I could have died out here. “Th-thanks.”