By Ben Umayam
Ridwan is thinking about the news this morning; they gave the guy some 99 years. He is already 24. If he dies in jail after 50 years, do they keep his body there for another 25?
He pumps once, twice. Something weird with the brakes. That other driver, not Pakistani, but Latino, maybe from one of those South American countries. They speak Spanish there, so different. Not like the way he learned when he immigrated to Alicante with his Auntie from Cornwall. There, Spanish is different. Theirs is much nicer. They always say “Hola” and “Muy Buenas” to you over there. Here everyone says, “Coño. Cabron.”
He is thinking now about the Latino guy, on the highway, in the snow. He wonders if he was new at driving a truck like he is. That guy, he texted a friend. Told him his brakes didn’t seem to be working. Ridwan thinks, make sure you do not text Habibi.
That guy did not take a runaway truck route. Runaway truck. Sounds like a runaway train. Sounds like some sure collision. The news reports say that guy should have taken the runaway ramp if his brakes were failing. That guy should have taken the hill that goes off the highway. Take the hill that goes up a dirt road on the side of a mountain. Gravity will do its thing, slow a truck, even a big truck like his, to a stop.
Rid does not trust the pile of dirt that goes up the side of a mountain. So Rid, like the Latino, decides not to take that uphill route.
Rid decides not to stay on the highway either. That Latino guy did, stayed on the road, crashed and burned, and is sentenced to 99 years. Involuntary manslaughter, the jury did not buy the Latino guy’s rejection of the laws of Sir Isaac Newton. Laws were laws. He broke the law.
Ridwan thinks if his brakes fail, he will not chance 99 years in jail by staying on the highway. So instead, he will get off on a local road, crash into some field or something. Kill some chickens or a cow at worse. But not a bunch of people in a fiery collision on the highway, 99 years in prison.
“It was like in slow motion. I saw the whole thing." Joe, the homeless guy, would say later. Everyone assumes he is homeless, clothes a mess, missing his two front teeth. “I was on the way to the rec center. The bus turned at the library, and we saw it come off the I-70 ramp, turn, hit the center thing, then fall on its side and block everything. Shit, I said and got off the bus. This is a mess for the rest of the day. Traffic started backing up going north, cars backed up going south. I got off and decided to walk the rest of the way.”
Ridwan pulls off the highway, down the ramp even though he remembers, from some handbook, you are not supposed to do that. Is it against some law? Even if he breaks some law, he is sure it won’t mean 99 years in jail, not for some inexperienced trucker, a guy who takes a local road instead of a runaway ramp.
The hairpin turn coming off the highway is sharp. Ridwan turns hits the bump, and his truck careens to the side. He slides. The whole world is not upside down, just on its side. He curses the bump that was the center island, the truck now effectively blocking both directions of the parkway that goes through the center of the smallish-sized town. The truck blocks the parkway that hugs the “Little River” that it is named after.
The big truck sits on its side, in front of the Wendy’s, in front of the Cheap Mattress that sells expensive ones, in front of the High-Country Dispensary that sells edibles and flowers for way too much money. Ridwan lies on his side, his truck sprawled, blocking the road that runs like a river through the town, north to south and south to north.
His troubles with the local dentist, unbelievable. You can’t make this up. They told him that NY is the only state where dentists don't take a qualifying exam. "All you guys from New York, you all show up here, and you have all these problems.” That is what the tell him at this Colorado dental office. No insurance? We have a gold plan. Pay yearly, and you get our discounted price.
His visit would be routine and cheap, he thinks. A crown fell out when he flossed that morning.
The dentist is Vietnamese, his accent heavy. He says that NY State is the only state where a dentist does not need board certification. “Your NYC dentist has left a root canal with one root still intact, another crown, rotten to the core.” Convinced, he lets the Viet schedule three visits, finish the root canal, do two crowns, the last that attaches to the partial. He sends the partial denture out to fit the new crown. George pays the $3000 discounted price.
For three weeks, he is not George; for three weeks, he is Michael Strahan.
After three weeks, the Viet dentist puts in the new crown and is proud of how it looks. Then he inserts the old partial denture and does some adjusting.
They are no longer a good fit. The minute George chews on a baby scone, the denture comes loose, and the baby scone gets stuck between the denture and his palate. And it is always painful now, the old denture. It hurts so much; he is always taking it out.
Livid, George is. He has paid 3000 bucks for this dental work. They do all this stuff, three visits, and his partial comes back obsolete. Plus, he now has a lisp.
Another dentist with the clinic, she is Dutch with origins from New York City. She tries to fix the denture. She tells George he must read out loud, practicing t's and s's. "The tongue has to relearn how to say those letters. You will relearn in a couple of weeks."
“Thweeth-hearth, I am already gay. Now thith?”
Dutch dentist laughs, tells George a story while she tries to refit his partial. Her grandfather lived in a house that is now an administrative office at Brooklyn University. “Wath Bwooklyn Univerthity. I know a Bwooklyn College, not a Bwooklyn Univerthity!”
George hears from Andy while waiting at the dentist’s office. He is stuck on the bus for an hour already—traffic at a standstill. The bus driver tries taking side streets, and that does not work. Driver nice enough to let him and the rest of the passengers off. “I ain’t supposed to do this; I am supposed to leave you at a bus stop. Just don’t tell anyone. We ain’t getting to a bus stop anytime soon.”
He is going to walk, he says. We are supposed to do Mexican food for lunch. I want to go to Fruitopia. That's what I call it. Never can remember the name. I look it up, Fritangas it is called. What does that mean in English, I wonder? We will meet there. I take the partial dentures out. They hurt, and I lisp; who cares if I look like Michael Strahan at the Mexican restaurant.
They turn into the restaurant parking lot. Maybe he thinks it better to wait it out here, at this restaurant. Maybe in an hour, he thinks, things will ease up. There is a table for two in the corner. Would have preferred a booth—more space to discuss nothing.
“Fritangas.” Nina says. That is Nine-a. The first syllable pronounced like the number 9. "Odd name for Mexican. In Nicaragua, that’s a plate of rice and beans and a protein, a fritanga. Will you look at this menu, all this Mexican stuff. So fancy. Who said this is a hole in the wall?"
It is buzzy. Waitresses are trying to appease customers who have waited too long, bussers juggling glasses of water threatening to topple, the short staff struggling.
Hank does his grunt. And a nod in agreement or disagreement. More of a nothing humph.
She wonders. It is pretty bad. Stuck for 2 hours on a parkway because a truck overturned, blocking traffic going north and south. Not a word is said between them for 2 hours.
She remembers her fiftieth birthday. She confronts Hank about something or another. He snaps back; he never wants her to mention that again. Odd and juvenile. Why shouldn’t she mention it? It is all part of being married. He wants to keep things all shut up, tied up tight in a box.
As she blows her candles out that day, she thinks she never wants to celebrate in the future. It is just another day, as far as she is concerned. Just like the others. Careful what you wish for is her thought as the smoke from the candles floats away.
Five years later, she is at this corner table, her husband humphing and nodding, never talking, stuck on the parkway, stuck for over two hours because of an overturned tractor-trailer. And it is her birthday, her 55th. And he, no one, is talking about it.
They arrest Ridwan. They pull him out of his cab, and his teeth are chattering. The refrigerated air has seeped through the broken glass into the driver's cab. He is as cold as his cargo of lite beers when they pull him out.
They have all been pretty much on the bus for two hours. There is some movement now. The parkway is cleared, the lanes going north. Going south, is still blocked by part of the truck.
The lady walks up to Amber. The lady smiles a plastic smile. "Donde sta la parada para eso.” She holds her piece of paper out. The scribbling looks like The Comfort Inn. But it could be the other place with the Spanish name, La Quinta. It is scribbling. And they are all the same, motel cheapos. Expect nowadays, they are not cheap. Nowadays, it is practical to stay at these lower-priced places.
Amber has taken four years of Spanish. High School. Don’t ask her if she can speak it. She does not speak it at home. She does not think in the language, so don’t ask her if she can speak it.
Yet she knows enough to tell the lady it is the next stop on the bus. The lady smiles, not trusting the gringa’s English. She asks the guy in the orange construction vest, shows him her piece of paper and asks, “Donde sta la parada para eso.”
Carlos is third generation. He speaks English with that middle state twang. His Spanish is still first rate, the real thing. He asks her if she knows if it is the Comfort Inn or La Quinta. The lady says she does not. Not know? It is what someone wrote down for her. He tells her in Spanish, lady, you should know the name of the place where you are starting a job. Carlos shouts out to the driver from the middle of the bus, “Les, she doesn’t know where she is going. It sounds like she is starting a new job at The Comfort Inn. What stop is that?”
Everyone on the bus, not a lot, a handful of people, all yell out it is the next stop, past the mall with the Under Armor and Levis factory outlets.
“Whoa,” Carlos exclaims, “talk about good Samaritans. That is cool. All you folks trying to help out. Senora, es la proxima parada. Tu quieres The Comfort Inn. Se llama The Comfort Inn.” In Spanish, he tells her to get off at the next stop and walk up the hill, and it is right there.
Since he speaks excellent Spanish, the lady’s smile turns to a grin. Everyone rings the bell, and she gets off. Carlos repeats, “Man, you guys, all good Samaritans, wanting to help.”
It is the wrong stop. She is starting a job at La Quinta, which is the previous stop.
Carlos and Les carry on their conversation as the standstill heading south eases up, Carlos yelling up to Les driving the bus. The whole bus learns Carlos is an electrician. “Working right under where the forest fire was. Every year we have to dig up right under the tree line to make sure the lines won’t go down during the first snowstorm.” Les says you would think they would come up with a permanent fix, so they don’t have to fix it every fall before the first snow. “You would think, right, but they don’t. Fine by me. Keeps me with a job through the winter. Gunna finish this job and come when it is cold, collect unemployment, maybe work at the Lowes during Christmas. Then collect till it is warm again. Say, did you hear about Carmen? She is some mean bitch. You can’t run a house like that. Gotta keeps the customers satisfied.” He goes up to the front of the bus and whispers the Carmen story into Les’ ear. The traffic eases up. Things return to normal. People ring the bell. People get on, and people get off.
Chuck and Joni are a new couple in town. They leave the Fritangas restaurant like everyone else, having waited for their food from an overwhelmed staff and after eating, still waiting out the traffic lockdown. They live on the hill, on the bus route that goes north. The shuttle will return, then changes, goes south after the bus terminal. Walking, they, sure enough, catch the first bus out going up the hill. Things are slow but moving along. The driver is talkative, having been stuck in one spot for three hours. He goes through the litany of what has happened. He uses words like discombobulated. They pass a truck, a small truck. The driver announces it is the truck that has caused all the problems. It is obviously not that truck, too small. The sign on the side of the truck says B.D Totnal. Bus driver quips that it stands for “Bad Driver Turns over truck, no accredited license.” He laughs all the way up the hill. Clever, Joni tells Chuck. A discombobulated bus driver with a sense of humor.
The couple has just bought their house. The market is crazy. They buy in a day, fix it up in a month and rent it out for ski season for 6 months. Meanwhile, they will move to Spain, Croatia, or wherever it is warm and infection rates are low. Israel is sounding good right now. Isreal wants to do a fourth vaccine, a mandatory second booster. The world is up in arms; they are overreacting. Talk about conflicts, but it is the Holy Land. Evangelicals have built plexiglass platforms on the Sea of Galilea. They charge you a price to take a picture walking on water.
Everything is seemingly back to normal. The last of the backed-up cars going north and south on the parkway that hugs the little river, they have all straggled home. The passengers, of cars and buses, all stuck for 3-4 hours, are now settled in, discombobulated, contemplating what just happened.
At the Spotted Trout Café, the following day for the next few days
The café is named after the trout in the river by the parkway blocked going north and south the day before. I can never remember his name, Chuck tells his wife. Bobby, no, that’s not it, Jerry, that could be. I remember it was the name of one of the Blood Sweat and Tears members. There were so many members in that group.
Clay greets the couple. Introduces himself to Joni. “Hi, I am Clay.” Yes, Chuck thinks, David Clayton Thomas was the guy who sang “You Made Me So Very Happy.” Clay has heard they are going to the Caribbean. He tells them that he works with a shuttle service to Denver airport. He says he will give us a good price. I tell him no thanks. The bus service to Denver is excellent, only 12 bucks. The bus system here is fantastic even when the freeway is shut down for 3 hours by an overturned truck.
Joni asks why they don’t take him up on the offer. Chuck tells her that Clay lives near the airport shuttle office. In the parking lot. He says he lives out of a van, a rec vehicle, parked in the parking lot near the outlets. He tells Chuck, "I shit, shower and shave at the rec center.” He has a free membership.
It makes sense. Clay is there at the café every day, same outfit, corduroy jeans, and flannel shirt. He brings his own cup in for coffee, goes straight to the sink and washes it out, and gets his coffee. He never seems to pay. He has his own table, second from the door, right next to the stage where the performers perform their live music. He wears a cap that looks like Bob Dylan's on his 1960's album covers. “Do you to take a 90-minute drive to the Denver airport for 90 bucks with a guy like that,” Chuck asks Joni.
People have their laptops open, sharing pictures. The traffic, standstill running north, running south. The overturned truck, six axles, big rig. Everyone is pulling up the picture of the police chief on the internet carrying off a case of cold lite beer. A similar picture of the mayor, a gal, with her kids, the fire captain is doing the same.
Everyone is sharing pictures from internet news agencies and social media. Everyone is smiling in the photos. Even Joe, the homeless guy with no front teeth, is smiling. All carry-off cases of cold lite beer. George and Andy are doing their morning lattes. George turns to Andy, and says without a lisp, “That Joe guy, he looks like me.”
The truck is emptied of all its beer on the internet so that tow trucks can turn it upright. Everyone is helping. Everyone is happy, and why not, free and cold lite beer. Beer is always cold here. In the 1860s there was some big train wreck in these parts where all the beer, the supply to the gold miners for the summer, got ruined because it was too warm. From then on, first in trains and then in trucks, beer is always transported in CO by refrigerated transport. It is a cold free lite beer morning, that morning before.
Ben Umayam moved to NYC to write the Great American Filipino Gay Short Story. He worked for political pollsters, then became a fancy hotel chef and then retired. He is working that short story again and has recently been published by ARZONO 2022 Anthology, The Phare, BULL, Down in the Dirt, Blue Pepper, Metaworker, Ligeia, EthelZine, Lotus-eaters, 34th Parallel, Digging Through The Fat, Anak Sastra, Corvus Review, and two of Insignia’s Southeast Asian Drabble Anthologies.