Four days after Christmas, the mayor of Kinnaston looked from the south-facing window of his office and saw a semi-trailer truck sitting at the top of the bluff. The truck looked out over the edge, testing the sight of the sweeps and pitch of the switchback road beneath it, and seemed to decide against descending it. Made sense to the mayor. Even from the window, he could see sheens of ice draped over the road with mounds of snow and drifts collected at the elbows of the turns.
It wasn’t the first time the mayor had ever seen a truck up there like that. Saul Greenberg before had met shipments of goods up there that had come in for his hardware store, and he’d enlist some of the local boys to drive up the bluff and bring his goods back down. He’d asked the mayor a time or two, who had helped as much as he could. They would make a day out of it sometimes, driving up and down and up and down until the goods were home, and they’d order some food and drinks from the Bluebuckle Café or the Piazza Pizzeria or the Tall Man Garden, and they’d tell the stories the mayor didn’t get to hear when people remembered that he was the mayor and he’d laugh with them and do his best to forget what he’d heard when he woke the following day.
The mayor sat in front of his desk, dressed for the day in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans and his favorite pair of moccasins. The week between Christmas and New Years Day was his favorite week of the year. No cars in the parking lot but his. No bodies in his office but his. The door between his office and the front office was open as well as the door beyond it to the hallway. From his desk, he could see three blue lockers set into a brick wall, peppered with posters and fliers.
He ran a hand through his white beard, a tangle of unorthodox growth he usually grew for this time of year. At times, the town called upon him to serve as Santa Claus for the local Christmas parties. He’d been thankful that he’d grown it this year since the Morrison’s and the Toomer’s had called upon him for their childrens’ holiday parties. And a favor from those two clans were worth ten from the normal citizen. But later that week, he’d roll into Good Tom’s Barber Shop and order the lather and the hot towel and enjoy the warmest, smoothest shave of his life.
The tips of his beard prickled against the stale air. From somewhere, the air moved and relief came with it. He loved sitting at his desk like that. He went to work.
On his desk, a folder of building permits that he’d be forced to reject lay next to his signature stamp and an inkpad. The town would celebrate New Years Eve this year with a frugal sensibility, and somewhere in his desk was the budget that he’d have to approve. Sheriff Powell requested an extension ladder for the police office, a building that had only one story and a basement, and the mayor would have to figure some strategy for disappointing the sheriff as kindly as possible. And his reelection was three or four months away. His self-compiled version of the Kinnaston phonebook lay in some drawer in his assistant Anna’s office, and he’d personally call each number on the list before early April.
Away from his work, he glanced back to the window to the truck on the bluff. Still there, it’s engine running. Tufts of smoke pluming from the exhaust stack. The clouds in the sky above it had been hewn. New daylight purging through the brumous world.
And then the truck probed the road, rolling forward a few feet. It stopped. Then, a few feet more.
“Oh no he isn’t!” the mayor whispered.
The truck drove a few yards down the first incline of the switchback, stopped up its wheel and slid a good yard before catching on the road.
“Oh no he isn’t!” the mayor yelled.
He picked up the receiver to his phone and rifled a series of numbers. No answer.
He rang the numbers again. Three tones later, the sheriff answered. “Not now, Anna,” he said. “Not in any mood for games today.”
“This is the Mayor Caulfield, Sheriff.”
A pause. “Oh, Mr. Mayor, sir! I’m so sorry, sir. Thought Anna was giving me a task to do. So sorry. Hoping for a quiet day today, it being the holiday season.”
“Terribly sorry to inconvenience you, Sheriff,” he said, throating his authority, “but some halfwit is driving a semi down the bluff.”
“A what now?”
“A semi, Sheriff. A truck. Driving down the road.”
“A semi truck? I don’t think he’ll make it, Mr. Mayor. It’s ice all the way down. We’ll have to send him right back up.”
“Yes,” Mayor Caulfield said, shooting a sigh into the phone receiver. “You’ll have to tell him. Get over there right now.”
“Well, I’m on my way, but I’m on the north side and the driving conditions aren’t too good over here and the plows been broke since a week before Christmas, and you know that, so I’ll have to come the long way round.”
The mayor rubbed the bridge of nose. After a few moments, the sheriff said, “You’re closer, Mr. Mayor. I’m ten minutes away, at least.”
The mayor slammed the phone down on the receiver and rolled his wheelchair out from behind his desk and around it and through the door to the front office. His coat hung from the coat tree, but he passed it and rode out into the hallway.
He bore down upon the wheels of his chair, flying down the hall of lockers and classrooms. Over him hung a banner with the words: Come on Home, Kinnaston Kings! Left there from a month before. There were no lights in the hallway except for the raw sunlight cutting through the classroom windows at long slants.
A red and blue VW bus sat in the parking lot behind two broad tracks reaching all the way to the street and before two thin tracks cutting onto the sidewalk around the bike rack and up to the front door. On each of the wheels of the van, a set of chains. The mayor retraced his tracks from the front door and around the bike rack, careful to drop down from the street to the lot without throwing himself forward. At the van, he reached forward from his seat and pulled the two sidedoors ajar and they opened unto him like the double doors.
Echoes of an engine kicking against the clutch fell into the valley from the bluff. He looked and saw the truck, having stopped at the topmost elbow of the switchback road. From that distance, he could not see the driver but he knew him to be a fool all the same. But at least he had stopped.
“Thank God,” he said. “Just stay there and we’ll get you.”
After a few sputters and drops from the engine, it roared anew.
“Don’t you dare,” the mayor muttered.
Somehow, the truck backed up the slope and then rocked forward at a sharper angle until it found the guardrail, then backed up again and cut an even sharper angle. The mayor watched it with his hands clasping his armrests and his head shaking. Eventually, the cab of the truck found an angle clearing the turn, and as it descended, the trailer whipped around the elbow behind it, losing a wheel from the ground and then finding it again and the mayor’s heart jumping at the sight of it.
“You fool,” he whispered. Behind the van’s double sidedoors, a thick sheet of metal hid the van’s insides like the drawbridge of a castle keep. Grasping the side of it, he released a catch that sent the bridge down on a block and tackle system. He rolled back and watched the ramp float down to the snow-covered lot.
With hard breaths, he drove himself up the incline. When he found the floor of the van, he paused to steady his heart. Against the side double doors, four braces of metal formed a simple frame, with a nylon rope fed through the brace on his near hand with a toggle attached to the end. He spun around on the van floor and fastened the brakes on his chair, and with the toggle in his hand, he tugged against it with rowing heaves. The pulleys flicked against the brace and did their work, taking the slack of the rope as he pulled, but he still felt the weight of it.
As the ramp clicked back into place, he sagged in his chair and held his chest. Instinctively, he checked the pulse on his left hand. Quick bolts of blood running their circuit, perhaps on some pursuit. He checked through the windshield, but could not yet see the semi on its descent, which he knew should have comforted him but knotted him instead. Through sharp thickets, his blood ran. It was a good few minutes before he managed to slow his pulse.
The van had been hollowed out, with no seats except for a bench in the far back of the van bearing a few lengths of nylon rope and an underweight toolbox. He rolled himself forward to the steering wheel, with its three bars erected before him at odd angles. In his chair, he shifted to his left, the armrest in his side, so that he could fish the keys from his pocket. With his left hand, he pumped the brake handle, and with his right he released the clutch. He turned over the ignition but choked it off when his hand slipped.
Framed in the windowglass, the semi had stopped at the fourth elbow of the road, the cab of the truck jammed at a disgusting slant. The wheels of the truck couldn’t find any grip on the road, shearing the valley with their caterwauls, and the trailer was half leaning against the guardrail. Some sixty to seventy feet beneath that turn, the mayor knew, were a series of cabins and sheds set against the rock wall of the cliff. Their families would be there this time of year.
After a few more squeals from the cab wheels, the truck stopped on the bluff, and the mayor whispered his thanks. Fumbling with his levers again, he tried the engine again and got it to catch. It shivered to life. He levered the van into reverse and swung it around in the parking lot, and then rocked it into first gear and onto Buchanan Avenue. He managed to get the van to third gear until the road ended in a tee at Tenth Street, where he cut his van on a harsh left turn, and despite the chains, the tires still slid. At the intersection, he glimpsed Mrs. Baak and her daughter through the windshield of her Mercedes, both of them with their hands thrown up as if to brace for an impact. His van drifted at least five feet in front of them, but he held his breath anyway as he cleared them.
Riding east on Tenth, the switchback road obscured the sky and rose over him like a foreign god. There were no cars on Tenth, so he chanced the fourth gear and wished immediately he hadn’t when the gearbox protested. Somewhere behind him, the gears squealed awkwardly against the rear axle.
At Fornier Avenue, Orie Wetterman’s truck clogged the road. The mayor trumpeted his car horn. Like a stolid pioneer, Orie would not budge from his course, straddling down the center of the road. “Move, Orie! Now’s no time for the speed limit!” he shouted at his dashboard as he punched his horn.
When Orie had had enough, he pulled his truck to the side, throwing up his arms in frustration and waving angrily as the mayor streaked past him. As Tenth Street met the Main Boulevard, with the market at the corner, he swung the van to the far left of the road and threw the wheel hard clockwise to cut the corner. But he oversteered and the backend hooked around and spun him outward like a carnival cyclorama and the brakes of his wheelchair gave and he flew forward and his face smashed against the steering wheel as the gravity threw him with its fickle grin winking and the buckshot to the side and glass around him and he was revolving slowly inward and the cosmos were imploding into him. He felt it in his gut, the concavity of unfound districts at the corners of God’s creation, and it sickened him.
He lifted his head from the steering wheel. To his right, a small crowd stood in front of the market with their hands all covering their mouths. Before him, the bullied side of a jeep, the passenger door lying helpless on the snow amidst an augury of broken glass and plastic. Through the mess, a red-haired young woman in a deep green coat stared at him. She pointed. Up at the switchback road.
He looked up. He could not see the truck, but he could hear its engine and the crunchslip of its tires on the ice. Back to her, he looked. It was Aine Duffy.
He nodded to her. His engine still rumbled at his back. He pulled down on the gas and kept her gaze as he passed her and turned up onto the boulevard. “Later,” he said. And he allowed himself a chuckle. “Of all people,” he said.
The mayor rounded the first turn of the switchback and the second slowly, though he was in fourth gear and the engine was fighting. The turns were barely wide enough for his van to clear them comfortably. “It’s impossible,” the mayor said. The semi had finally managed around the fourth turn from the top when the mayor reached him. With his eyes fixed on the rearview mirrors, the trucker was not looking at him. The mayor sat at the bottom of the third turn and hammered his carhorn.
The trucker snapped forward and the cab suddenly shot left against the cliff and the trailer buckled behind it and slid a few yards forward and wedged itself between the cliff and the guardrail. “Good. You’re stuck,” the mayor said.
He urged his van up the road toward the truck. When he reached it, he fixed in the handbrake and rolled himself away from the steering wheel and over to the passenger side. He brought down the window. The passenger window of the truck dropped down, and a man dressed in overalls and a leather jacket and a baseball cap hung out the window and looked down at him.
“Is this the road to Kinnaston?” the trucker asked.
“It is, you delinquent!” the mayor said.
“What?” the trucker asked, confused.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” the mayor shouted up to the trucker. “As the mayor of this town, I do order you to stop this truck immediately and wait until the sheriff arrives!”
“Can’t stop now,” the trucker said, his jaw loose. “I gotta get down this mountain and unload. I’m four days late as it is, and I’ve got nine more trucks coming behind me.”
“Excuse me? Did you say nine more?”
“There’s ten of you?”
“Yessir. And they’re on my heels.”
“Well they’re not coming down here, I promise you!”
“Don’t think that’s up to us. I was told to come down. That’s why they called me.”
“Who called you? Who’s the delivery for?”
He disappeared for a second and reappeared with a clipboard. “People of Kinnaston, the order says.”
“How can that be?” the mayor asked, his cheeks flush. “I am the mayor of the people of Kinnaston. I think that I would be informed.”
“Well I guess we’re just a pair of chowders yelling at each other, then.”
“Listen,” the mayor said, “your devil-may-care attitude might win you affection in the outside world, but it will gain you nothing here! We were enjoying a perfectly wonderful day until you came along and endangered it all!”
“Endangered? I wouldn’t put it like that. Your cargo is in good hands.”
“Not my cargo! And no, what you are attempting has put lives in jeopardy.”
“I’m an expert at this kind of thing,” he said. “Just get out of my way, and I’ll bring the truck on down.”
“You will not! The sheriff is on his way. You will await his arrival.”
“I’m coming in, mister. You gotta let me.”
“I am not. I am sending you away.”
“We’ll see,” the trucker said and disappeared from the window. The truck revved anew, and the wheels turned on the ice to prepare the next maneuver. Jackknifed, the coupling between the cab and the trailer stuck out like a steeple. “We’ll see where you’ll go without your load,” he said.
He wheeled himself over to the ramp and the sidedoors. Unfixing a latch, he unfastened the lock on the doors and opened the doors wide to let the ramp down. When it landed, he launched himself down it.
The Mayor Caulfield felt his wheel slip from the ramp and find open air beneath, and he felt the chair slam sideways on the ice. And he felt the inward rotation, pulling him down. But nothing else beyond it.