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Kip Hanson
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interstate.jpg

On the Interstate

By Kip Hanson

 

Despite the blizzard, Will accelerated down the icy ramp. He grabbed fourth gear, too soon; beneath him the big diesel shuddered and groaned. Thirty, thirty-five, now forty, the transmission whined in protest. He ignored the truck’s mechanical complaints and slid into fifth.  The Kenworth lumbered onto the deserted Interstate, the last cold light of February shining on Will’s brow.

          The pavement was glass. He regretted now not replacing that left rear tire back in Bismarck. He could feel it back there: slipping, grabbing, slipping, each icy bite making the truck groan and yaw in a great quarrel of reverberating sheet metal.

          Beyond the heaving mounds of troglodytic ice and snow crowding the highway’s narrow shoulders, visibility was but a few hundred feet; beyond that, the landscape revealed naught but an obscure pall of white gusting across the ghosts of desolate farm fields, the dirt and snow painting hazy zebra stripes down the silent rows of October's forgotten cornstalks.

***

          A glance at his watch told him it was nearly ten-thirty: she'd called just four hours earlier. He'd stopped to eat at a little diner crouching like a greasy brown mole on the backside of Moorhead, the place empty but for the waitress and a peevish short-order cook: both skulked in the back like they had someplace better to go.

A small TV sat perched on a stool in the corner, warning of record snowfalls and arctic conditions; all but emergency travel was advised. There was talk of closing the Interstate. Will dry swallowed an antacid and waved for the check. He would wait out the storm from his sleeper cab. As he reached for his wallet, his cell phone rang. 

          "Get home," she said, her voice flat, emotionless. "There was a car accident. Your son, he…get home, Will. Hurry."

The nagging pain he’d been carrying in his chest these past months blossomed into a burning flower. His fingers tingled and grew numb; he nearly dropped the phone. He clutched it hard against the dull buzzing in his ears as her voice went dim. "No, please wait, Margaret," he gasped. “What…” but she was already gone.

Ignoring the pain, he threw a twenty on the counter and stepped into the bitter wind. It’d been four years since she’d left them, but still she called him your son.

***

          The Kenworth roared past the nothing road which veered past Pipestem Reservoir and from there dropped straight south into nowhere. He was halfway to Bismarck. The slightest mistake now – a minor overcorrection, a tap too hard on the airbrakes – and he'd surely jack-knife into the wasted fields crouched on either side of the empty highway. At these temperatures, he wouldn't last the night.

          A sudden gust of wind tore at the rig, a driving caul of white, reducing his universe to the cab’s boxy interior and the malachite glow of the dashboard. He veered left but corrected in time, reduced now to marking his course only by the staccato white line bifurcating the Interstate. His grip iron, he clutched the wheel and peered out into the night.

          As he started up a long slow incline, the rear wheels started to slip. Trading speed for traction, he downshifted into four-low. To the right, he could just make out the tracks of the Union Pacific angling in from distant Jamestown. He thought about his Kyle, lying alone in some county hospital bed, tubes snaking out of him in a dark mystery, his teenage body swaddled in white cloth, bruised and broken…or worse. He increased his speed.

          A firefly of light appeared along the vague line of the UP, a glaring blue-white mote, waxing and waning in the fitful wind. The Union Pacific? But…no. No train would risk the icy tracks and monstrous drifts, especially at night. What the hell?

          It was coming fast. 

          He topped the rise and his stomach fell. The downhill side was both longer and steeper than the hill he'd just climbed. He downshifted carefully, hesitant to use the brakes on the icy slope; he’d surely be hauling ass by the time he reached the bottom. He downshifted again, and started down. 

          That hopping jot of light was growing, but still too distant to identify. From the corner of his eye, Will watched it flicker in and out of existence, gauging its speed: it was on a collision course. Despite his careful braking, Will was only just halfway to the bottom when the Kenworth began to slide sickeningly. He pushed aside all thoughts of the mysterious light and concentrated on his driving. The only chance was to let the rig coast – hoping he didn't gain too much speed, hoping he didn't slide right off the edge and turn turtle, hoping he didn’t jack-knife.

He almost made it.

          As the truck leveled out, a high-pitched whine sounded through the walls of the cab. Before Will could wonder what it was, his world exploded. There was a crashing roar like he'd struck a bomb and the tractor suddenly pulled hard right. Will was sure he was going over. The tire must have blown, he thought, but then knew better as a terrific rending, dragging sound came from below, followed by the gunshot report of shearing metal. The rig lurched once, twice, and the rear wheels locked. The semi skidded hard up against the shoulder and the trailer swung wide before finally coming to a lurching stop, the back end high on the frozen embankment.  

          A cold hand gripped the base of his stomach. It was the light, that crazy light that he'd seen skimming across the field: it had hit the truck. Groaning, he reached behind the seat for the safety kit and stepped into the night.

          The wind grabbed at his clothing like a frantic lover. At the front of the tractor, he swept the flashlight, confirming what he already knew. The medical kit slipped from his hand and spilled across the frozen pavement. He set out flares, but the wind only snatched them up, hurling them into the storm. "Fuck it," he said. "There's no one here but us anyway."

          Returning to the front of the semi, he began his grim work.

***

The snowmobile had struck the side of the tractor, just before the right front wheel. The Kenworth would be driveable, but barely. Most of the snowmobile’s driver was wrapped around the tire; the tattered remains of his machine hugged the side of the truck, entombing his headless body inside the wheel-well.

If it hadn't been for the leather racing suit, the body would have come apart as well. Will could just make out a pair of jaunty, purple on white lightning bolts stitched down the back of the suit. They pointed toward the rear wheels; Will could see the helmet there, wedged between a slack brake line and the fuel tank.

He climbed beneath the tractor and wiggled the helmet free. Holding the head between his knees, he shined the flashlight into the cracked faceshield – and screamed. It was Kyle. The boy’s once handsome features had been twisted into a frozen grin. His right eye stared accusingly; his left was a bloody slit. In the crepuscular stormlight, the boy appeared to be winking at him. But no – this wasn’t his son. Kyle was lying in some hospital room hundreds of miles away. And because of this other man’s son lying dead in his arms, it was possible he might never see Kyle alive again.

He looked up at the cab. The body was at this point just so much meat and bone, but still it seemed wrong to stick him in the trailer, stuffing him in among the dining room tables and bedroom sets which until that afternoon had been bound for Rapid City. Yet Will knew he didn’t have the stones, even on the best of days, to drive with the decapitated body of a teenage boy propped up in the seat next to him. Gently, he carried the boy’s head an endless sixty feet to the back of the trailer.

          Will was reluctant to set it on the ground, so he carefully tucked the helmet and the flashlight under one arm, then reached inside his pocket for the keys. He unlocked the door, and broke company policy by peeling away the metal seal they’d attached at the factory back in Butler, Pennsylvania, three days and a lifetime ago.

          Flinging the metal strip to the snow, he swung the gate open and gingerly set the boy's head just inside the doorframe. But as he stepped away, the wind gusted, rocking the trailer. Will cried out, helpless as the head toppled then rolled between the stacked wooden boxes and pallets of furniture; thump, thump, thumping down the length of the trailer before striking the far end with an ignominious thud.

          He turned away, weeping. The dark flower had once again blossomed in his chest. Clutching at his tingling arm, he grabbed up the flashlight and went back for the rest of the boy.

Will recognized the snowmobile. It was the same model as the one he'd bought for Kyle, just last year. Ignoring the pain in his side, he heaved at the metal and plastic stubbornly welded to the side of the Kenworth. With a creaking groan, the machine tumbled to the ditch.

          It was bitterly cold; by the time he pried the kid out of the wheel well, the leather racing suit with its jaunty lightning bolts was sufficiently stiff that the poor body encased within was frozen into an obscene, twisted u-shape. Across the front of the suit was stitched the name Sonny in bright red letters.

Will didn't have the stomach to straighten Sonny out, so he heaved the boy up and around his shoulders; it felt like some sort of hellish horse collar as he stumbled to the trailer door. Shrugging the boy from his aching shoulders, he tumbled him inside. There was a sudden tearing pain in his chest and Will fell to the ground, his hands scraping the windblown pavement. The flashlight blinked once and went dark. 

          "Hold on, Will," he said. "Just a bit longer, and you'll be back on the road. Let's get this poor boy covered up and we'll get going." He climbed to the relative shelter of the trailer and stepped inside, then went to retrieve the boy’s head before looking for something to cover the corpse. The storm howled like a live thing beyond the metal walls. As he struggled to tear away the plastic sheeting stapled to the nearest container, the wind rose up and with frigid arms, grabbed the trailer door and slammed it shut. Will heard the snick of the latch as it closed to, locking him inside. 

          He screamed, hurling himself at the door, “NO!” In the small rational corner of his failing mind, he knew it was hopeless, but still he pounded at the locked doors until he felt blood running down his arms. "Ah, Christ," he said, and slid to the floor. "What are you going to do, Will?"

          He was getting old; forgetting to latch the door was a rookie mistake. He wept at his stupidity, his frustration, his pain, and most of all at the grim certainty that he had just killed himself. Leaning his head against the cold trailer wall, he closed his eyes and thought about Kyle. He would never see him again.

Outside the walls of his self-imposed prison, the storm intensified. The trailer rattled and heaved, and Will prayed it would roll: if the trailer went over, the doors might pop. With the storm pounding at the semi-truck, he dozed off.

***

          Will’s eyes snapped open. “You fool,” he said. His cell phone: it was still in his jacket pocket. His hands numb with cold, he fumbled it open and speed-dialed Margaret. It rang once, twice, three times. At last she answered. “Hello.” Her voice was dead.

          “Margaret? Margaret, can you hear me?”

          “Hello?”

          “Margaret, it’s Will. Listen, I’m in trouble. My truck, it’s on the Interstate and…”

          Silence. He looked down at the phone. He’d had a signal, damn it! There was still a single bar there. He pushed redial, but after a long pause heard only the harsh waah, waah, waah of a disconnected circuit, followed by a click, pop, then nothing. He stared disbelieving at the screen: NO SERVICE.

          Will howled. Before he could stop himself, he snatched up Sonny’s helmeted head and pitched it across the trailer. It thunked against the door, rebounded sickeningly, and fell to Will’s feet. In the faint glow of the cell phone, he attacked it, kicking it again and again as he raged at the dead boy. "What have you done? Just what the fuck did you do to me, Sonny? Why were you out here tonight? Goddamn you, boy. I'll never get to see my son again because of you. I’ll never get to tell him how much I love him.”

          His fury finally spent, he stood in the crepuscular light, his shoulders heaving and tears of frustration running down his cheeks. His chest was leaden. He gingerly picked up the boy's head and carried it back to the corpse. Slumping down next to the wretched shape, he cradled the helmet in his lap, and reached over to clasp Sonny’s cold gloved hand in his own. Will’s terror was burned away, replaced now by pity and remorse. The boy’s sightless eyes stared up at him. "I'm sorry, boy. It's just you and me now. I’m here with you."

With those words, Will reached out and gently pulled the boy’s eyes closed. He snapped the cell phone shut and let the darkness prevail. Nobody would be calling him. As the cold took him, he lay down next to the boy, and cradled the helmet next to his broken heart.

***

          Will woke to terrific brightness. He scrunched his eyes against a crack of gleaming light; beyond it, daylight burned on a windblown winter landscape of farm fields and snow-packed road signs and freshly plowed Interstate.

The trailer door swung wide; there was a Highway Patrol cruiser parked sideways alongside the truck. Its red and blue lights flashed cheerfully in the morning sun. A State Trooper, one of those silly hats perched atop his head, stood peering into the back of the trailer. Abruptly, he turned and ran back to the cruiser.

          Will sat up. He pulled his hand out of Sonny’s frozen grasp and carefully set the helmet down next to him. “I’m sorry, boy,” he murmured, and stepped down into the beautiful winter morning.

He walked past the patrol car and down the Interstate until he reached the edge of a nearby field where a young man stood waiting. Will reached out to embrace his son. “I love you, Kyle,” he said.

In that way of his that Will knew so well, Kyle grinned in response. “I know Dad. Let’s get going.”

 

 

 


whenyousleep.jpg
Art by L. A. Barlow 2016

When You Sleep

Kip Hanson

 

          My name is Steven Paxton. My best friend Tim used to call me Steve-O, but I can't talk about that, not now. First I need to tell you about her. I don't have much time. You probably won't believe it, but to be honest I don't really give a shit; I probably wouldn't believe it either.

          I'll start by telling you it wasn't my fault. No matter what else happens tonight, you need to know that. Everything was because of that stupid girl. Her and her white bicycle.

          It started on a Friday night, maybe four months ago. School was out for the summer and Tim and I were cruising down by the lake, right near where the tunnel crosses under the parkway. It might have been seven o'clock or so. Despite what they wrote in the police report, I was not loaded. Tim had been hitting on a doobie, sure, and I might have taken a hit or two, but I was fine to drive. I know my limits.

          But Tim was pretty wasted by then and he started screwing around, messing with the stereo, dicking with the mirrors, crap like that. I told him to knock it off but he kept at it, so I hit him. The next thing I knew he was in my face, giving me a bunch of attitude, and that's when it happened: from the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of color and then WHAM, something hit my car.

          I stopped as quickly as I could, but it was too late. Some woman started screaming from her front yard and the cops were there in around fifteen seconds. They pulled this girl, she was maybe nine or ten, together with her bike out from under my car. The girl started crying for her Mom and puking all over the place. What a mess. 

          I knew my Dad was going to be really mad. It was his car, and the bumper was all scratched to hell, and there was a big dent in the quarter panel, I suppose from her head because there was a blood smear there. I asked one of the cops about it, just to make sure he filled out a damage report for the insurance company, and he actually got pissed at me, like I was the one who'd hit her instead of the other way around.

          Well, anyway, the girl died before she could go to the hospital. As they loaded her on the stretcher, she turned her head and looked at me kind of funny, like she knew what was coming, and her eyes sort of rolled back in her head and off she went. Creepy. So then I had to go to the police station and fill out a bunch of paperwork, and they called my Mom and told her to come pick me up, because they'd put the car in the impound lot for the investigation. What a bunch of jerks. 

          A few weeks later I had to go to court, which was bullshit because Tim didn't have to go, even though he was the one who started the whole mess. The girl's parents were there, and I felt sort of bad when I heard the girl's Dad blubbering on about his little Annie. And the girl's Mom, she looked just like her, with those cold blue eyes. She just sat there the whole time, staring at me with that same look her daughter gave me, right before her eyes rolled up white into the back of her head.

          As if all that wasn't bad enough, the judge really threw the book at me; he took away my license for six months and put me on probation, and said I had to do community service, crap like cleaning up trash on the side of the road and helping the retards get on the short bus over at Johnson Middle School. It's not fair, but I suppose it might not matter now anyway, because of what that girl is trying to do to me. That's right, the girl: Annie. She's back.

          You're probably thinking right now that I'm making this part up, just to get attention or something, but I tell you it's true. I saw her. The first time was six weeks ago, after the Homecoming party Tim and I went to at my friend Jimmy's house. It was late. Since they took my license, we had to walk home, which despite the cold was okay because we were both pretty wasted. But I wasn’t so far gone that I imagined what happened next.

          Tim was in front of me. He was busy pushing over mailboxes and tossing rocks at old lady Smith's house, just to dick with her because she's such a bitch, when I heard this sound. Ring, ring. Ring. Real faint. I told Tim to shut up so I could listen. Then we heard it again. Ring, ring.

          Tim started to get all weirded out. “What the fuck is that?” he said. I told him to chill, because he was making me scared. We couldn't see what was making the sound, but it was like one of those bells from a little kid's bike, the kind your Dad buys for you at the hardware store when you’re five or six years old. What the hell was it? And then I turned around, and I knew.

          It was dark, with just a sliver of moon riding overhead, but it gave off enough light to see. More than enough. At the end of the street was a cul-de-sac, and a small girl was there, riding round and round the circle on a gleaming white bike. She wore a flowing white dress, like a party dress, with a jaunty yellow bow tied across the back. I knew it was the same dress she’d been buried in.

          Tim stood next to me. Aside from the sound of his breathing, the night was quiet. No dogs barking, no crickets nor owls, no distant traffic. It was quiet but for the sound of her bicycle: the whisper of the tires on the pavement, the rattle of the chain, and very clearly, the sound of her pale little thumb pushing the bell: ring, ring. Suddenly she stopped, and I could see her looking at me, her blue eyes glinting in the moonlight. Smiling, she started towards us.

          “Steve, what is that?” he whispered. “Is it...” but I missed what he said next. I turned and ran. I could hear the clatter of the gutter leaves blowing in her wake as she sped to catch us. Tim stumbled, screaming as her fingernails traced down the back of his letter jacket. I reached back, grasped Tim's hand and pulled him to my side. Gasping for breath, we reached Jimmy's doorway and raced inside, the girl pedaling hard right behind us. From the safety of the house we watched her. She seemed angry now, but patient, looking at us as she passed, back and forth, back and forth. We spent the night at Jimmy's house, but sleep was a long time coming.

          We saw her a few times over the following weeks. Waiting, always waiting. She would stand at the edge of the field during football practice, or riding her bike up and down the hall during math class, hoping to catch me alone. Tim would sometimes call me late at night. He said he could hear her outside; the ringing of the bell, the hissing of the tires running up and down his street.

One night after work, he came home and opened his bedroom closet to find her standing inside. He told me her eyes were cold, glassy blue like a doll, and she reached for him. He said her little fingers were dirty, as if she’d recently climbed out of a grave. His parents called the cops when he ran out of the house and down the street screaming. He spent the next week in the hospital under heavy sedation.

 ***

          I went to Tim's funeral last Tuesday. As the minister finished the sermon, I saw her standing at the tree line, watching me, her white dress fluttering in the fall breeze. The cops said Tim's death was a suicide, but I know differently. It was her. As I left to go home after the service, I heard the sound of the bell, echoing across the cemetery: ring, ring.

          Last night I checked my email. There was a message there from Tim. It was sent on the day he was buried. It said simply, “When you sleep, Steve-O,” and was signed Annie.

          I know it's just a matter of time before she gets to me.

***

          It's 4:15 AM. I'm so tired. I haven't been sleeping much lately, and when I do, I dream of her on her bike, the ringing of the bell, the whisper of the tires; sometimes in the middle of the night I wake to hear her dress brushing against the walls of the hallway, or the rattle of the lock as she tries the bedroom door.

          I can see her out there now, sitting on her bike in front of my house, staring up at my window. I want to go to her, to tell her I'm sorry about what happened, that it wasn't my fault, but I'm afraid. At least when she finally comes for me, I can rest. I hope it doesn't hurt.

 

 

soncircusclown.jpg
Art by Bryan Cicalese 2017

Son of a Circus Clown

 

Kip Hanson

 

My father loves children. Everybody knows that, even the Elephant Man, and Helga the Armless Wonder. He loves their sticky smell, their laughter and limitless potential. One night after too many beers, the Great Zambini said that my father must have been a nursemaid in a past life, or perhaps a pediatrician. In this life however, the one we currently inhabit, he is Binky the Clown.

Binky loves the circus too, but not as he does the boys and girls who come to see him here, to cheer his name and laugh at his foolish antics. And he loves his little car. It hurts his back something fierce, but still, he lives for the applause of the crowd as he climbs impossibly forth three times a day from within the car’s cramped interior. That car is my father’s five minutes.

He tried one time to be Binky the Rodeo Clown. He enjoyed the self-importance that came with rescuing the cowboys from bulls and runaway broncos, yet he soon gave it up. There were too few children at the rodeo. The best Binky could hope for were teenagers, no longer innocent or pure. No, the circus is where my father belongs.

I don’t see him much. Not unless he’s in the ring, juggling soccer balls while on a unicycle, or driving that car of which he’s so proud. At those times, that man is no longer my father; he is Binky the Clown, and oh how the children laugh.

Most Sundays we have dinner together: leftover pronto pups and deep-fried cheese curds washed down with stale keg beer. We play pinochle for a quarter and talk about the coming week’s performance. I never stay. Soon after his fourth Budweiser, my father reaches behind the couch, pulls out a quart of Knob Creek, and pours himself two fingers. That’s my cue to leave.

I prefer sleeping with the Grimbaldi Twins in their rusty Winnebago, or beneath the Fat Lady’s sagging Airstream. And when the nights grow hot, I go to the big top, where my father earns our keep. Lying there in the exact middle of the center ring, the glittering mechanisms of the trapeze artists dangling over my head, I breathe deeply the sweet smells of camel shit and clean sawdust, and listen to the echoes of the laughing children.

Sometime after midnight, the Barker rolls in from town in his ‘54 Studebaker, a fat prostitute riding shotgun. The sound of the peanut shells beneath his whitewalls is like the crunch of small bones. I watch the shadows on the canvas fade, one spotlight at a time, until finally I can sleep.

Each spring the circus moves on, a caravan of tired helium balloons dragging about the countryside – Memphis, Lansing, unavoidable Poughkeepsie. We load up our gaily-colored tents, our grumpy tigers and pretentious llamas, and hit the road, huge piles of elephant dung and seagull fodder marking the moment of our annual passing. And sometimes, there is other evidence of our passing: small moldering gifts, the leavings of a circus clown.

They found the first body of this year’s season two weeks after we left St. Louis: little Timmy Martin, buried in a landfill. Then came five-year-old Rebecca Forsythe, stuffed in among restaurant leavings in a Montreal dumpster. Her neck was crushed. After that was Bobby Swift, floating in the Ohio River with the last glare of Dayton’s July 4th fireworks celebration twinkling upon his sightless eyes. Melissa Hudson marked the end of our tour, gone missing from her parents’ Labor Day picnic in Atlanta. They’re still searching for her.   

We winter over in Fort Lauderdale, and sometimes Mobile, hibernating among the snowbirds. This is when I love my father most, in the quiet interval between October and March, when the smell of greasepaint fades away and his size 24 shoes grow dusty in the closet.

And when spring comes, I find myself once again with the Great Zambini, hunched over his small black and white TV after each night’s finale. We watch the evening news and listen for reports of missing children, wondering if the loss of a few young circus goers outweighs the happiness Binky provides to the rest.

After fifteen years of watching, I think I finally know the answer, and reach beneath the Great Zambini’s couch. I lift his Korean War issued Colt .45 to my lap, quietly checking that it’s loaded. The old magician is too busy staring at Katie Couric to even notice.

“See you tomorrow, Zam,” I say, and take a long walk around the park to Binky’s trailer. He’s usually home by midnight.






Kip lives in sunny Tucson, where his wife makes him watch Poltergeist while insisting clowns are not scary. You can find his work scattered about the Internet, at Foundling Review, Inkspill, Yellow Mama, Bartleby Snopes, and a few other places, proving that a blind squirrel does occasionally find a nut. When not telling lies, he makes a few bucks cobbling together boring articles for technical magazines.

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