22 • Smoke
The trucker involved in the accident that killed Mary Wilkins was out of Oregon. He’d be long gone and Will would have to track him down by phone. The witness was local. Will called and arranged to meet at the scene.
Walking back through the courthouse vestibule, he nodded silently to the security guards who stood with their arms crossed over their chests looking as bored as they deserved to be. They nodded back.
According to the report, the crash occurred east of town, at around mile marker 169. He drove back and forth on the highway until he found the mile marker, next to a sign advertising free ice water at Wall Drug, just 251 miles away, reminding him to wonder again, as he sometimes did, how he ended up here, in a place as homogenous as whole milk, known best for its red state politics, giant presidential heads carved (by which he meant blown up with sticks of dynamite) into the side of an otherwise beautiful mountainside, and a massive building decorated in corn cobs.
He pulled to the shoulder and stopped, setting his hazard lights before he got out. He reached into the back seat from the passenger side for his camera and measuring wheel, though from the sound of things he doubted there would be any skid marks to measure. Neither driver had time to brake. Swerve, crash, done.
The reflective lime green highway worker’s vest he wore for highway work made him feel like a kid playing dress-up, but gave him a better chance of not being run down himself while he got closer to traffic than most people would prefer. He walked along the shoulder, looking for debris—a piece of a grille or broken headlight glass—that might mark where the crash took place. About a thousand feet ahead of the truck, he got his answer: tire tracks going off the shoulder and partway down the ditch. He stopped. He’d stood in a similar place a hundred times before, but it never seemed to get easy. He followed the tracks to where they stopped partway down the slope, and photographed the spot where they ended and the car flipped, sunfish-style.
At the bottom of the slope, the grass was trampled by emergency vehicles and personnel who’d worked frantically, he imagined, to save two women for whom it was already too late. Mary Wilkins had been crushed into the dash on impact with the semi. Her passenger, unrestrained, flew through the glass without so much as a fare thee well when the car rolled in the ditch. The two women, perhaps best friends, died at the same moment, in the same place, but alone, thirty feet and a mass of twisted steel between them.
Will crouched at the grassy ditch bottom where two bright bouquets, wrapped in shiny cellophane, sat atop broken glass fragments, leaning against a headlamp housing. Soon enough, the highway department would plant a “Why Die” marker on the shoulder, the ominous red X marking the spot where the crash victims had passed on, the rhetorical question more a chilling cautionary tale posted on a stick than a dignified memorial of a life lost.
A shout from the road broke Will’s contemplation. “Hey! Are you Philip?”
He looked up. A green and white Volkswagon bus was parked on the shoulder and a bearded man in a blue Mets cap and faded jeans stood in front of it.
“Phillips.” He held a hand to his eyes to shield the sun. “Will Phillips. Are you Derek?”
“Sure am, ” the man said as he walked down the slope. “So sad. Just can’t get it out of my head.”
Derek Jeffers made a reasonably credible witness. He ran a local bar and grill that broke even most years, was married with one child on the way. His beard was close-trimmed and he was clean-cut. His jeans were faded but, if Will was not mistaken, had a faint crease down the front suggesting they’d been lightly pressed or at least neatly folded before they were put away. He spoke with a firm voice—strong but not loud—despite a mild stutter. He looked a guy in the eye both when he spoke and when he listened, a trait Will found remarkable even as it made him uncomfortable. Jeffers had worked hard to carry himself this way, likely over many years.
“Give me a quick rundown of how the scene played out so I have a good sense of it, and then we can sit in my truck and I’ll get you on record.”
Jeffers took off his cap and ran a hand through curly black hair. “Well, I was driving right behind Miss Wilkins’s car, headed toward Longville, ” he said. “She was in the inside lane, going slower than she should have been, maybe 50 or so. She should’ve been in the slow lane, so I was getting ready to pass her on the other side. The tractor-trailer was coming the other way.” He pointed to the west with his cap. “The guy was pretty close, maybe just back to the other side of the mile marker.” Will looked down the highway. “I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden she went across the line into his path. The trucker tried to swerve, but it was too late, man. He couldn’t do anything. I took the ditch on the north side to get out of the way, and he ended up in the ditch right in front of me. Just missed. Miss Wilkins flipped into the ditch over here, and, well. You know.”
He looked away from Will for the first time since he’d started talking, staring at the ground. “I don’t know what happened. But there wasn’t a damn thing he could do. Boom.”
“Did you know either of them well?”
“The passenger—Miss Weber—she used to come in to the cafe with a group of women on Tuesdays when I had the senior discount on lunches. Her bridge club, I think.” He smiled wryly. “If I had to guess, she and Miss Wilkins were probably arguing over points when it happened. Lucille Weber had a reputation for cheating.”
“Alright. Listen, let’s head up to my truck and I can get a quick formal statement from you, and then you can get back to work. I hate to take any more of your day.”
“It’s fine, really. Anything I can do to help.”
Derek Jeffers twisted the cover off a can of Red Man. Will hadn’t seen his back to notice the faded ring on his back pocket. Jeffers took a pinch of dark leaves in his fingers and wedged it inside his lower lip.
The first—and only—time Will had chewed tobacco was at summer camp in 8th grade. He’d skipped the leather-working course and gone down to the dock with Kelly Bidwell one afternoon. Kelly was a rugged cowgirl twice his size. She pulled a can of Copenhagen from her pocket and a flask of peppermint Schnapps from the waistband of her pants, hidden from the counselor by the blousy front of her strapless cotton sun top.
Kelly had made it her personal mission for the week to toughen Will up. She’d made him ride a horse the day before, and when the horse tossed him off, she picked him up off the ground like a rag doll and heaved him back into the saddle, insisting it wasn’t just an expression old farmers use. She taught him a couple of good punches he could use in a fight, and said that a guy like him needed to be able to defend himself. Now she was showing him how to pinch the leaves, pull back his lip and push in the stash. She told him not to swallow, but just spit to the side.
Will’s mouth filled with Copenhagen-infused saliva until a thin brown trickle rolled out the corner of his mouth. He wiped it with the back of his hand, feeling his cheeks fill with the putrid mix. He wouldn’t spit. Tom had tried to teach him to spit like the baseball players, quick, small, clean. But he always ended up with spittle on his chin or a slimy string hanging. He couldn’t do that with Kelly, so when she looked away, he swallowed. A whole mouthful of nasty brown spit-juice. He gagged.
“I told you not to swallow it, you damned city fool! You spit it out, like this.” Kelly aimed at a small clam shell, hitting the top with a brown splotch. She laughed so hard she fell backwards onto the beach. In his panic, Will swallowed again, this time taking the tobacco with him. He gagged and coughed, spitting the remaining leaves out of his mouth and into the lake.
Kelly tossed him the flask. “Take a drink, ” she said. Will caught it and threw the flask back onto the sand.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Paid good money for that, plus had to put out for the guy who bought it for me.” Kelly bent over and picked up the flask, brushing off the side. She opened it and took a drink. All her considerable strength seemed to concentrate in holding her lips together as it went down. Then she opened her mouth in an O shape and let out a slow breath of icy peppermint. Will thought her eyes might have watered just barely and he wondered if she were really such the roughneck she liked people to think.
She screwed the cap back on with a thick sandy hand and threw it to Will again. He held it between his thumb and middle finger, slightly away from his body.
“Drink, ” Kelly said.
Kelly cut him off. “It’s just that you’ve never had a sip of liquor? Worried about what your mommy might say? ‘Bout time you got started. Life’s too short.”
“It’s not that. You . . . You already drank out of it.” The lake seemed larger than when he’d first gotten to camp. “Backwash, you know?”
“Spit? You’re afraid of a little cowgirl spit?”
“Well, there’s sand, too. And I already have this weird feeling in my mouth from the chew.” He spit to the side. A small spot of brown floated on the surface, bobbing with the waves next to his shoe. He took a step to the side. “Look. Just . . . no. Not today.”
“My god. Wipe the damned thing off and take a drink. You’ll feel better. Promise.”
Will looked at the flask, still extended away from his middle between two fingers. His neck felt hot.
“Don’t make me come over there.”
Will looked at Kelly. He looked back at the flask.
Water crossed over his feet, soaking his sneakers and wicking up his pant legs. He tried to lift his foot but the wet sand sucked back at the rubber sole and held him in place. Goosebumps prickled against his Levis. He noticed how skinny his arm looked in a t-shirt.
Just then he heard splashing and felt his head jerk back. He stumbled into the water, skinny arms and legs flailing. Kelly yanked the flask out of his hand and dragged him out into the water with a grip on the hair at the back of his head. He should have had it cut before camp. She unscrewed the cap with one hand and forced the bottle to Will’s lips, holding his head back to receive the icy drink. He clamped his mouth closed tight, feeling the grit of sand against his skin and the crushing of his lips between the hard glass and his teeth. Kelly pushed a finger between his lips and howled “Yee haw!” as she emptied the bottle, part into Will’s mouth and part into the lake, excess running down his chin and neck into the water.
“Never said No to rodeo, Willie Phillie.” Kelly pulled her leg behind Will, taking his legs out from under him before she let go of his hair, dropping him into as sputtering heap of arms and legs in knee-deep water.
She splashed back to shore, guffawing the whole way, and sat down on the beach. Will coughed and spit, falling back into the water as he tried to get to his feet. He reached for the dock to steady himself. Before the rising heat reached his ears, he doubled over in the water and vomited.
Kelly stood, polishing the mouth of the bottle with the front of her blouse.
“You are such a girl, ” she said as she walked away, leaving Will standing in the lake amidst algae, Copenhagen leaves and the morning’s oatmeal.
Will smoked his first cigarette because of Kelly Bidwell. He traded Jed Smith KP duty for two cigarettes. One, he smoked alone in the woods for practice, knowing from watching television he would choke and cough his lungs out the first time. He couldn’t have a repeat of the scene at the lake when he was trying to reassert his absent virility. The second he kept in his Levis pocket waiting for the right moment.
His moment came the fourth night of camp. He’d walked out of Movie Night, a western. Clint Eastwood irritated Will, always surrounded by helpless women who lost their clothes for all the wrong reasons. He was rough with them and a terrible conversationalist, and still they swooned over him, even before he actually did anything heroic, which usually wouldn’t even have been necessary if Eastwood’s women had been written with any intelligence at all. He leaned a shoulder against a tree and put his hand in his pocket, rolling the cigarette between his fingers. He tried to curl his lip like Eastwood. That’s what it was, he decided. Women loved the way he curled his lip. And he had a really big gun.
The lodge door slammed shut and Will looked up to see Kelly’s silhouette against the glowing doorway. She must not like Eastwood either, he thought.
He quickly stood upright and pulled out the cigarette and Jed’s lighter from his pocket. It lit up on the first try—he’d practiced that too—and then leaned back against the tree, stretching his legs out in front of him and appearing fully at ease. He pretended to look at the stars while he waited for Kelly to approach.“There you are, little Willie, ” she called ahead. “I was just telling the girls about you and your first chew. I wondered where you ran off to.”
Will turned. “Oh, hey.” He blew a lungful of smoke towards her. “Eastwood is such a bore. Good showman but he’s got nothing under his script. I decided to go for a walk and have a smoke.” He swallowed a small cough as it crept up his throat.
“Willie Phillips smokes. Well, I’ll be damned. And here I thought you were as pure as the driven snow.” Kelly stood with her hands on her hips, looking Will up and down. “Maybe I was wrong about you. Gimme one.”
Shit. He didn’t see that move coming. He should have traded Jed for three. His dad always told him he was better at tennis than chess. Think fast, Phillips.
“Oh, umm. Sorry. Was just enjoying my last one.” He took a long drag on the cigarette and let it out slowly. “But here.” He held it out to Kelly.
She hesitated. “It’s your last one, Cowboy. We still have two days of camp.”
“Half a cigarette won’t make much difference then, will it, ” Will said. “Really, take it It’s fine. I know a guy I can bum off of.”
Kelly took what was left of the cigarette and a long pull. She held it in while she handed the cigarette back. Will waved it off. “No, no. Finish it.”
“Yep, sure. You’ve seen what happens to me when something’s already been in your mouth.”
Kelly chuckled and blew a line of smoke into the night sky. “You’re okay, Phillips. I think I know a girl you might like.”
In that moment, Will felt as though he’d crossed some imaginary but before now impassable threshold, carried over on a magic carpet that floated along a thin trail of nicotine and other deadly chemicals into a room of rough-shaven and ripped men, where testosterone surged through the air shafts alongside oxygen. It didn’t matter to Will who this girl was or even if he ever met her. He suddenly knew he needed the air in that room to survive, and Kelly Bidwell, by virtue of a slender white cylinder just three inches long, had deemed him worthy to breathe it.
It cost him cleaning the latrine, but Will managed to broker himself a deal with Jed for a half dozen cigarettes. He didn’t mind latrine duty; it was the only time he could lock the door and use the shower, which he was now even more in need of. Kelly made good on her offer, and for the rest of the week, Will held the soft, warm hand of a petite girl from Skokie with amber curls and a sweet smile that may have rivaled that of Neruda’s beloved Matilda. She laughed at all his jokes, even the ones others didn’t understand, and when she asked him not to smoke, he put the last of his cigarettes in his suitcase and didn’t touch them again. Of course, later there would be Barbara, and he would find reason to take them out another day.
Derek Jeffers opened the passenger door and leaned out to spit on the gravel shoulder, coughing a little for having left the chew in his mouth too long. “Excuse me, ” he said as he closed the door and wiped his mouth. “Sorry ’bout that. Guess I shoulda waited until we were done.” He pointed to the digital recorder sitting on the center console between them in Will’s truck.
“No problem, ” Will said, silently agreeing with Derek that it would have been better to wait to chew until he was out of a stranger’s truck. Probably nerves, he figured, as he absentmindedly turned a box of menthols over against his knee with his left hand.
“Anything else you can think of?” Will asked.
“Nope, that’s pretty much how it happened.”
“And were your answers true and correct to the best of your knowledge?” Will tried to inject a somber tone as though he were actually in court.
“Oh, yessir, ” Derek answered. “Honest to god truth.”
Will turned off the recorder and played back a few seconds to ensure the recording was successful.
“Listen, ” he said, extending a hand to Derek, “thanks for meeting me out here. Really appreciate it. I think that’s all I need.”
“Happy to help, ” Derek replied as he shook Will’s hand. “If you need anything else, you know where you can find me.”
He got out of the truck and jogged across the highway to his VW van and drove off while Will pulled out his phone to check for new messages. He played back a voice message.
“Mr. Phillips? Are you there?” Will chuckled. Pearl hated voice mail, but he had to give her credit for using it anyway. “I want you to come to dinner tonight. That nice Ms. Julian is coming and the two of us won’t have enough to talk about alone. There should be someone closer to her age, don’t you think? Even though I do think she’s much younger than you. Anyway. You’ll come at 6:30.”
Will checked his watch. It was 3:00. He’d have time to get home and clean up.
“You could come down earlier of course and help me cut vegetables but you are so busy all the time you will probably just blow in here with the tumbleweeds at 6:45. Don’t do that. Try to be on time, alright? 6:30, I said. Okay. See you. Pearl.”
She always added her name at the end like she was writing a note and not recording a message. Will smiled, thinking he couldn’t love Pearl Jenkins any more if he tried. He pressed the Callback button. She would want to hear his promises to arrive on time.
“Hello?” Pearl answered on the second ring.
“Mrs. Jenkins. It’s Will. I got your message.”
“You come then, of course.”
“Yes, I’d love to join you and—what’s that girl’s name again?”
“Her name is Cameron. You’ll be on time? I told her 6:30 and I really want you here by then. Show her how prompt you can be. Girls like that.”
(to be continued)
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