Black ice at the morning rush

It was the pickup truck time of morning. Winter sun barely pinking in the low east. The air raw. Men in flannel shirts and work boots poking along in the gloom, sipping coffee, already thinking about the far end of the day. In the beds of their trucks: tools and ladders and tarps and lumber and chain; metal things clanking at every bump like loose change in a bucket.

Driving west, I felt it first on the back of my neck, hairs stiffening. Then, my palms flushed and I disconnected from the earth, as if everything were floating, as if the whole world was suddenly lubricated, as if the law of gravity had been turned on its side. Glided up over the crest of a hill, frictionless, weakness on my left side, wondering if my car was having a stroke. Ahead, a sinuous line of red tail lights. I touched my brakes, but barely slowed; an ominous soft rasping noise came up from under the car, the sound of a subpoena sliding across a polished walnut desk.

Ice: clear, thin, and shoulder to shoulder — the mist of the boney black night fallen as frozen skin, rock hard.

My old car sashayed a few times across both lanes, then caught some gravel and clawed itself to a stop.

I stepped out carefully and shuffled up to the guy in front of me; he rolled down his window and a coil of Marlborough smoke curled out.

“What’s goin’ on?” I asked.

“I dunno,” he said.

“Sure is slippery,” I said.

“Some awful,” he said.

I looked way down the road toward the trouble.

“That must be it,” I said.

“That must be it,” he said.

I glided on toward a small clot of men standing with their hands in their pockets and their feet wide apart next to a rusted-out F-150, idling roughly. I had to slide my feet along and weight each step carefully, as if I were very old.

“They got the road closed,” one guy said, as I approached. “Well, not so much closed, as they just don’t want you going through,” he clarified. A subtle difference. No one said much. Heater fans clicked on and we heard the occasional swipe of a wiper blade, clearing mist.

“Some slippery,” the first guy said, as if maybe we’d all forgotten.

A stout guy wearing Carhartt overalls that reeked weakly of kerosene broke free and headed further west toward the trouble. He kept his hands in his pockets and elbows splayed out for balance and puffed vigorously on his pipe as he chugged and slipped down over a little hill in front of us, never moving his feet, but getting shorter all the time. In a few moments, all we saw was his hat.

Ten minutes later, chilled, bored, I followed after the stout man, came upon an idling logging truck at a bend, grabbed a chrome bar and heaved myself up onto the steel-grate running board — happy to be standing on something that didn’t feel alive. The window slid down.

“Slippery,” I said.

“I slid all the way from that pole back there,” the trucker said. “Thought I was going to have to just slump her into the woods, but finally caught the soft shoulder and she just stuck. That guy in the pickup behind me comes up on me and spins right ‘round and smacks the bank. His eyes were big as saucers, but he’s all right.”

“What’s down there?” I asked, pointing toward the curve ahead of us.

“A white Suburban went straight at the curve and just went right over into the woods,” the trucker said. “The cop said no one got hurt and the Suburban wasn’t too bad, but you couldn’t even see it because it was white and there’s snow. I could only tell it happened ’cause there was a tow truck catiwhumpus in the road with a cable snakin’ down over the bankin’. Now we’re just waitin’ on sand.”

We both looked down the empty road toward the curve and the snow bank and the gap in the bank where the guy went straight because with all this ice straight was all there was, no matter how far you cranked the wheel.

“He must have been some scared,” I said.

“I imagine,” the trucker said. “It’s awful slick.”

Shortly, a plow truck came grinding up the hill, real slow and backwards, two sweaty guys ahead of it catching sand out of the hopper with shovels and slinging it expertly to port and starboard, the driver steering by his mirrors and waving toward the sidelines.

The plow truck passed and we all climbed back in and went to work.

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