Large, feathery clusters of snow spiraled toward the windshield. From the passenger seat, Nora could see between the thinning trees to the ravine below, where snowflakes seemed to hover and rise in undulating waves. For a moment she felt content, leaning back in her seat as Gil steered the car up the steep incline.
A sign at the turnoff had warned that the unpaved road through the notch, a shortcut over the mountains, wasn’t plowed during winter months. Nora was nervous about the conditions, but Gil didn’t seem concerned. They were heading home after a weekend in Vermont, and Gil was in a hurry to get to Boston because his teenage sons were flying in from Colorado that night.
The snow seemed to be coming down faster; the road could get worse as they went up. Nora wondered if the tires on the Hyundai were any good in snow.
“Is it slippery?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” Gil said with an edge, perhaps a little unnerved himself.
His chin was cocked toward the windshield as he concentrated on driving. Lines fanned from the corner of his eye — she’d always thought of them as smile wrinkles, but now, with his lips pressed together, the creases made him look tired, old, and a little mean.
She’d been introduced to Gil at a party two years earlier. A professor of art at the same college where she was getting her master’s in literature, he was a good-looking man, in shape, with a full head of curly salt-and-pepper hair. She’d first noticed him from across the room by his laugh, one that signaled confidence and a good nature. She hadn’t been able to guess his age — forty-five, it turned out, fourteen years older than she was. Regarding his divorce, he’d told her days later, he’d been an idiot and slept with a visiting artist. He and his wife had been growing apart long before that; the affair, though, had triggered their separation. After the divorce his wife had moved with the boys to Denver, her hometown. The boys liked Colorado. His wife had remarried quickly.
When the tires lost their grip and spun before catching again, she gasped and clutched the dash. Gil shook his head.
“OK, so I’m a bit jumpy,” she said. “As we go the way of the Donner party.”
“Very funny,” he said.
“If it came to that,” she said, “and I die, you have permission to use my body for sustenance. It would be an honor to save you. Just cut off a slice of arm, or better yet . . .” She lifted herself to the side and patted her behind.
“That is a distasteful joke,” Gil said.
“Ha ha,” she said, and thumped him on the shoulder. He smiled, pleased with her acknowledgement of the pun.
She loved that smile, dimples dimpling and the way it lingered, usually blossoming into that robust laugh. His paintings had the same vibrancy. It wasn’t hard to be attracted to his colorful spirit: he liked adventures and always had a plan. They’d scouted new restaurants, explored little towns, hiked mountains, sailed, camped on the coast of Maine. Time had passed in this way, locking them together, creating a past behind them, and pulling them on into the future.
Gil urged the car along as they hit a steeper incline. “We’re almost at the top,” he said.
“Maybe we’ll get a view,” she said. “Can we stop for a minute?”
She knew he was nervous about getting to the airport on time. He first had to drive to New Hampshire to drop her off at her apartment in Nottingham; then he’d go on to the airport in Boston. He hadn’t yet included her in his plans with the boys. Usually he went west or met them for ski trips elsewhere. When they’d come east the previous summer for the first time, he’d hemmed and hawed, then told her he wasn’t ready to introduce a new woman into their lives. The boys, he’d said, were still getting used to him as a part-time dad. She’d spent the week trying to forget that her lover was just across town pretending to his sons that she didn’t exist.
The snow seemed to be thinning, and as they came to the crest, the sky brightened, and Nora could just make out the peak that rose on the other side of the ravine. A maroon van was parked in the lookout spot.
“Looks like we’re not alone,” Gil said as he pulled over beside the van.
The freezing air stung her nostrils when she stepped out of the car. The van was dented and scratched, rusty around the wheels. Newspapers had been stuck against the windshield from the inside. There were no footprints in the snow around it. Gil sank his hands into his pockets and walked to the edge of the overlook. Nora followed close behind him. There was a narrow gap between the newspapers. Maybe someone was in there watching them. Or maybe the owners had gone off on foot in search of help.
A gust swirled the flakes around them. For an instant she saw a span of the fir-tree valley below and the gray ridges beyond. Then it was gone, lost in the foggy white.
Icy pellets flew against her face; she shut her eyes, remembering the igloo — a childhood fantasy. She’d told Gil about it yesterday when they were skiing on the trails behind the inn: She’d be driving a dog sled through blasting snow, her two babies swaddled and strapped on board, headed to the igloo. Once there, it would be warm and shimmering inside, the white ice-dome ceiling curving above. A fire roared in the center, but somehow nothing melted. Getting the babies and dogs in safe from the storm was the satisfying part. Over time the igloo grew more and more elaborate: carved-ice furniture and other rooms full of supplies, joined by arched tunnels. “Two kids,” Gil had remarked. “Where was the dad?” She’d shrugged. There was never a father, no husband; maybe dogs and children (who were as easy as dolls) were all she’d wanted then. “Come here, Eskimo woman,” Gil had said, and leaned in to rub his nose against hers. “My ice man,” she’d said giddily, though just as suddenly she’d felt strangely protective of her fantasy. Then, a thrill — a baby suggested somehow? Gil had pulled back, looked away. “Let’s get moving,” he’d said before skiing ahead.
Now Gil turned and looked at the van with the newspaper stuck to the windshield. Why would anyone do that? A makeshift curtain? Maybe someone was camping in there. As she and Gil went back to the car, she peered through the van’s side window. On the dashboard were food wrappers, crumpled maps, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.
“Do you think they broke down?” she asked. It wouldn’t be right to leave without at least checking. “Hello?” she called out, then knocked twice on the door. Nothing.
“What are you doing?” Gil asked. “Let’s go.”
She hesitated. But then, with the cold cutting at her neck, she hurried back to the car.
Gil started the engine and pulled onto the road. After a few yards he braked and put the car into reverse.
“What?” she said.
“He wants something.”
She looked behind to see a man standing in the road, motioning for them to come back.
The man wore jeans and an unbuttoned shirt. Perhaps he’d been asleep in the van, bundled in a sleeping bag, and had only just awakened, dressed, and stepped outside in time to catch them. The car whined as they backed up, and the man took a few steps forward to meet them. Blond, thin, shoulder-length hair flew around his head, flattening out, then shooting straight up in the wind. He held his eyes wide open almost like an actor feigning mock alarm. Gil rolled the window down, and the man put his hands on top of the car, leaning toward them.
“What’s up?” Gil said.
“You have a problem?” the man asked at nearly the same time.
“Do you need some help?” Gil said. “A ride or —”
“Can you tell me where on God’s green earth a person can find a bit of privacy?”
Nora drew back in her seat.
“Excuse me?” Gil asked.
“I said, where can people get left alone?” He spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. “Banging on my door.”
“Oh,” Nora said. She tugged the seat belt away from her shoulder so she could lean forward, show him her whole face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “We didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Staring in my windows.”
“Sorry we disturbed you,” Gil said. Nora cringed at Gil’s sarcastic tone.
“I apologize,” she said, and presented what she hoped was a sympathetic expression. “This is such a peaceful spot, though, isn’t it?” she added, as if they were all enjoying it together.
Then the man slapped the roof of the car, a bit too hard, Nora thought, though it seemed to be a gesture of release as he stepped back. He rubbed his bare hands together. Maybe they stung from the impact or the cold. Then he swung one hand behind his back and tugged his shirt or scratched himself. For one horrifying second Nora imagined he had a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants. But he brought his hand back, empty, and crossed his arms over his chest, as if to indicate he was done with them.
Gil began to ease the car forward, zipping the window up. Nora didn’t look back, but she saw Gil glance in the rearview mirror.
“Is he still there?” she asked.
“He’s going back to the van.”
Nora didn’t turn; she didn’t want the man to think they were the least bit fazed by him. Neither she nor Gil spoke until they were down the hill and the man and the van were out of sight.
“I don’t know why I backed up,” Gil said. “I could see something wasn’t right about him.”
“You thought he needed help. Of course you backed up for him.”
“Weird that he stopped us,” he said. “I mean, if he really wanted to be left alone.”
“Did you see how he reached around to his back, up under his shirt?” she asked. “I think he might have had a gun.”
“Really?” Gil didn’t sound convinced. The snow had stopped, but the road was still covered. “What was with the windows blocked?”
“Maybe he’s hiding out from the law,” she said.
“What a jerk,” Gil said. “What did he think — we’d trespassed on his private domain?”
Gil sped up, and Nora stiffened. “Maybe he thought we saw something,” she said. At a curve she tensed when it seemed they might not make the bend. Her foot hit the floor as if to brake. Gil didn’t slow down or say anything. She wished the road would level out.
“You shouldn’t have gotten so close, looking in his windows,” Gil said.
“What are you talking about? Now you sound like him.”
“And you don’t engage crazy people in conversation, by the way.”
“What? I didn’t.”
“ ‘It’s such a peaceful spot,’ ” he said, his pitch raised as if to imitate hers.
“I wanted him to see that we were there for the same reasons. That we understood,” she said.
“Somehow I don’t think he cared about the view.”
She thought to say something funny to lighten the mood, though she didn’t know what. Maybe Gil was speaking out of concern for her safety, like a disapproving but well-meaning parent. He patted her knee, his way of apologizing.
She saw him glance at the clock. “We could go straight to the airport if you’re worried,” she said.
“There’s plenty of time,” Gil said.
“When do they get in?”
“There’s plenty of time,” he repeated.
“You know, I could go with you. We could take them to dinner at that Chinese place on Route 1.”
Gil was silent; maybe he was considering her idea. She knew she was pushing him, but it was ridiculous that she hadn’t met his kids.
She’d seen them, though. Last summer, during their visit, she’d spied Gil’s car parked near the lake. She pulled over a half mile down the road and took the footpath to the beach. Gil and his sons were at the far end, hoisting the sail on a boat. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the older one, Andy, appeared to ask a question, and Gil smiled and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder, drew him close. The younger one, Jake, said something, and then they all laughed.
Now Gil said, “Let’s just get off this mountain first.”
“It’s been over two years,” she said. “Three since your divorce.”
Gil’s face darkened. “I know how long it’s been,” he said.
The road zigzagged, and the car went into a skid. Gil grabbed the steering wheel hand over hand. They spun down the road at an angle, then backward. Tree trunks whizzed by inches from her window. For a second they were straight, once again headed in the right direction, but the tires couldn’t get any traction on the snowy road, and the momentum of the spin sent them off to the right until they slammed into a tree.
The forest was quiet, muffled under the covering of snow, except for frozen trees that moaned in the cold air. Other than a dented passenger door and a cracked headlight, everything was all right. The car started. The heater worked. The wheels were straight. But they were in a ditch, snow up over the hubcaps.
Nora stood on the road and watched as Gil pumped the gas, trying to rock the car out. She checked her cellphone: no bars. Then she got behind the wheel while he pushed. The tires dug in deeper. Gil opened the driver’s door and motioned her out. He bumped into her in his hurry to get back in, and she knew he was thinking about his sons’ plane coming in. She gazed up the hill. All was gray and white and stark. And then, as if she’d conjured it, the front of the van came into view, its wide tires eating up the snow, enlarging their tracks. Gil got out of the car. They stood off the road as the van neared.
“Jesus Christ,” Gil said. He busied himself, kicking at the snow around the back wheel and scraping it away with the side of his boot. The van slowed. Passed. For half a second she felt relief. Then the brake lights came on. The van stopped.
Gil bent low, surveying the underside of the car.
The man’s shirt was buttoned now, and he wore a grimy canvas jacket over it. He came around the back of the van and looked at them as if amused.
“What’s up?” he said.
Nora wondered if he was mimicking the way Gil had said this to him earlier. She looked straight at him, refusing to be intimidated.
“We’re stuck,” she said.
The man reached into his coat pocket, took out a pack of cigarettes, and lit one.
“Cigarette?” he said and held the pack toward her.
“No, thanks,” she said as brightly as she could, though she considered taking one just to be polite.
The man shrugged and tucked the pack into his chest pocket. “Looks like you’re not going anywhere,” he called to Gil, who’d climbed back into the car. The engine roared, and the tires whirled in smooth, icy ruts.
Gil got out and tramped to the back of the car to inspect the tires.
“Do you think you could help push?” Nora asked the man. “Maybe with the two of you we could get it out.”
The man dropped his cigarette and crushed it into the snow with the toe of his boot. Then he stared at Gil and twisted his lips sideways, considering her request. He clearly wasn’t going to do anything unless Gil asked. Nora marched toward the car and slid in behind the wheel. Gil stared at her through the windshield. She raised her eyebrows at him — a pleading look. It scared her to see the worry on his face. Then he turned toward the man and said, “It would be a help. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Nora worked the pedals as the two men stood on either side of the bumper, pushing. In the rearview mirror she could see Gil’s face screwed up with concentration and effort. All she could see of the man in the side mirror was his arm and one boot digging into the snow. Suddenly the man’s face filled the mirror. He’d come forward and gripped the handle of her door. For a moment she thought he meant to open it and reach for her, but then she realized he’d repositioned himself for leverage. She could see that Gil had been startled by this move too; he stopped pushing and stood erect. The man kept pushing and grunting as if he could launch the car without their help at all. If anything, he was lodging the car deeper into the drift. Nora stepped on the gas again, but without Gil’s counterforce the car shuddered in its frame, the wheels skittering.
Nora gripped the steering wheel. She wondered if the man meant to be malicious. She turned in her seat to catch Gil’s attention, but he didn’t look her way. He stood off to the side, staring at the man with a look of resignation. She wanted to yell at him to push, but the noise of the engine was too loud. Instead she laid on the horn.
Gil jumped at the sound. The man responded by digging in harder. Gil shook his head at her as if the whole world had gone crazy but then came forward to push once more.
Nora pressed the gas gingerly, careful not to let the tires spin. The engine labored, chugged, then stalled. The car rolled back. Gil and the man stepped away as she turned the key. The engine wouldn’t turn over. She tried several times before the man leaned toward her window and said, “Flooded it.”
“Great,” Gil said. He stomped his feet as if they were frozen. “Try again.”
“Not yet,” the man said. He took out a cigarette and lit it.
Gil rolled his eyes and kicked at the snow, sending up a spray. The man leaned against the car just behind her window and smoked. The odor bit into her nostrils.
Nora turned the key. The engine made a dull groan.
The man leaned down a bit, elbow on the edge of her window. “Not just yet, sad eyes.”
He grinned, his gray teeth appearing slowly. Nora turned away, then back, determined to look different from whatever it was that he saw. For some reason he laughed.
“Hey,” Gil said, “do you have a rope or something? Maybe you could pull us.”
“Naw,” the man said.
“You don’t have a rope?”
“Can’t pull you,” the man said.
“Are you sure it’s flooded?” Nora asked. “Or do we need a jump?”
The man bent closer, and she resisted the urge to lean in the other direction. She didn’t want to appear frightened.
“It is what it is,” the man said. “It ain’t anything else. Flooded.”
Nora took a long breath and plunked herself back against the seat.
“Doubt me all you want,” he said. “You think I don’t know these little Jap imports? Fourteen years I worked my father’s garage. Took it over when he passed.”
“Let’s push again,” Gil said.
“You can push all day,” the man said.
Gil sucked his upper lip in. “Jesus H.,” he said under his breath.
“A curse ain’t going to get you anywhere,” the man said.
Gil’s chin went up in defiance. He looked like he was about to say something that he might regret.
“The snow’s let up, anyway,” Nora said. “That’s good.”
“I didn’t curse,” Gil said.
“Lord’s name in vain,” the man said matter-of-factly. “No call for it.”
“We’ve got to get to Boston,” she said. “To the airport. Our sons are flying in.” Our sons. It had just come out of her. She wasn’t sure if Gil had heard. “They’ve been visiting their grandparents in Denver. We thought this would be a shortcut.” She gave a chuckle.
“How many boys you got?” the man asked.
“Two,” she said. “Andy and Jake. Thirteen and fourteen. Smart kids, but if we aren’t there . . .” She stopped herself from tacking on God knows, afraid any mention of God, benign or not, might set him off.
Gil had stopped stomping around in the road and stood still, listening.
“They’re good boys. Appreciate the wilderness, mountains, sailing. They love to sail.” She wished she’d said something else, something not so upper crust. “Boats,” she said. “Water.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” the man said, looking down at the snow. Behind the man she could see Gil holding his hands out, palms up. She could hear the question in his head: Why are you telling him about my kids?
“Try it now,” the man said.
“OK,” she said, turning the key. There was a sawing noise, then it caught. She pressed the gas, let the engine warm to it.
Gil and the man went to the back of the car. They pushed as she pressed on the gas. To her surprise the car popped right out, and she steered it onto the road and came to a stop behind the van.
The two men walked around to the driver’s side. They both had the same satisfied, slightly proud grin.
“Well, that worked,” Gil said to the man. “Thanks.”
The man shrugged. “Got to help thy fellow man,” he said, condescension in his tone.
Nora leaned out the window. “We appreciate it,” she said, then slid over to the passenger side as Gil got in.
The man continued to stand next to the car.
“Well,” Nora said, “we better get going so we can pick up our boys.”
“Two teens,” the man said. “You don’t look old enough.”
Nora summoned up a laugh. “Well, thanks,” she said.
“We’re going to be late,” Gil said, pulling his seat belt over his shoulder.
“Yes,” Nora said to the man, “and thanks to you we’re on our way.”
“I always stop for a lady,” the man said. Then to Gil, “You’re lucky to have such a nice wife. Get her home safe.”
Gil adjusted the rearview mirror, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as if he’d just swallowed something.
They were now in the uncomfortable position of having to follow the van down the mountain. Gil pumped the brakes as the van slowed; then the van sped up, and Gil sucked air and shook his head.
“What is it with this guy?” he said.
She wanted to tell Gil to be patient, that the man was probably just being careful.
“He did help us,” she said.
Gil exhaled sharply through his nose.
The road turned and opened out into an expanse of snow-covered fields. The van started to move a little faster ahead of them on the flat stretch. They were off the mountain and would soon hit the main road.
She turned to look behind them, up to the ridges. The sky was blue now, and sunlight warmed her face. She realized that she wasn’t ready to go home, back to her apartment, to everyday life.
“So, about meeting my kids,” Gil said.
She looked at him hopefully, but when he turned toward her, she saw his resolve.
“It’s unfair,” she said. Her eyes pricked and filled. Gil laid his hand on her leg.
“Nora,” he said, “I’ll never be able to make you happy. I just can’t —”
Heat rose in her. “It’s not your responsibility to make me happy.” She felt tears slip. Gil’s shoulders sagged, then he nodded in slow determination, as if he’d been trying to bring her to this conclusion all along.
He sighed and reeled out what sounded like a speech that had been long in the making: There was college to pay for, ski trips, new computers. Soon the boys would learn to drive, and he dreaded the thought of them behind the wheel. In the beginning, he said, he’d thought he wanted to get married again, have more children. He hadn’t meant to mislead her, but last month, when her period had been late, he’d realized he didn’t want to do it all again.
Through her blurred sight she saw the glow of the van’s brake lights.
Gil jammed down on the pedal. They slid forward, stopping only inches behind the van. For a moment they sat in shock. Nora realized that Gil had reached across her, his arm like a bar against her chest. Her heart was beating in her ears.
Gil put the car in reverse and moved them back several yards. The van’s driver door opened and hung there, no sign of anyone. Then, to their amazement, the passenger door opened too. A woman climbed out. She was short and round, draped in a long overcoat. Limp brown hair hung from under a woolen watch cap. She glanced at the car behind the van and put her finger up as if to say, One minute. Then the woman disappeared in front of the van, but not before Nora realized she was pregnant.
The driver got out. Gil rolled down his window, stuck his head out.
The man took a few steps toward them. “Taking a piss,” he yelled over.
Gil put his window up. What was there to say? There was a woman in the van. She was pregnant, and now she was squatting in front of the van, peeing.
“She was in there all this time,” Nora said. It was as if the van itself had given birth.
Gil tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, bobbed his head toward the clock. There might not be time for him to drop her off, she realized. He might not have any choice but to take her with him to the airport.
Nora saw Gil look for a way around the van, but the road was narrow, and the snow obscured what could be ditches to either side.
“I hate to suggest this,” Gil said, “but to save time, maybe there’s a bus station or —”
Later she’d tell her friends that the day she’d ended it with Gil, it had felt as if an avalanche had crashed into her, swept her out of the car. She could sense Gil’s bewilderment as she threw open the door and clomped away, heading for the van. The woman and the man met her at the back. The woman waddled, leading with her large belly. The deal was made, and Nora went back to tell Gil and get her duffel bag. He wasn’t happy with it; they didn’t know anything about these people. He took down the license-plate number and made her promise to call when she got home. It was the pregnant woman, perhaps, that helped him let her go.
Now, given the front seat in the van, Nora turned to smile at the woman, who lay on her side in the back on a blue-striped mattress strewn with blankets and pillows. The woman smiled back, a hand on her belly. Nora asked how far along she was. The woman told her seven months. Plenty of time before they made their way to Atlanta, where she had folks. They’d probably settle down there, since they’d lost the garage in the recession. Nora nodded, trying to seem at ease, but her knees bobbed uncontrollably. She pressed her palms against them, noticed that her feet were stepping on empty fast-food wrappers and bags.
The man had accepted Nora’s offer without question: fifty bucks to drop her at the bus station in Burlington. Maybe she had given Gil just what he’d wanted — to head off alone without her in tow — but still she felt some sense of retribution. She’d taken the initiative and made a quick, brave plan; she’d get herself home.
When the man reached across her toward the dash, she flinched before she realized he was going for a pack of Marlboros. Finding it empty, he crumpled the pack and tossed it on the floor at her feet. He patted his pockets, and soon he had lit a cigarette. Nora thought she might choke as the smoke filled the van. She couldn’t wait for this to be over, to be on the bus, to be home.
Dark, wet pavement appeared just beyond a small bank of plowed snow. The driver stepped hard on the gas to push through it. A loud bang, like a gunshot, blasted throughout the van. Nora jumped, her arms flying up. The pregnant woman exclaimed, “Oh!”
“Backfire,” the man said, as calm as could be. “Carburetor needs work. But not to worry, ladies. It’ll get us where we need to go.”
Nora took hold of the armrest as the van jolted through the slushy drift and out onto the clear highway. She leaned her head against the window to watch in the side mirror as Gil’s car turned east. How on earth did I get here? she wondered, though as the distance between them grew, it didn’t feel so unfamiliar. Soon the car melted into a tiny, glistening drop and vanished around a curve.