Haul Road
Ryan W. Bradley


WinterSkyEven at twenty-five miles an hour the snowfall looks like a TV left on through dawn. French is on the radio, letting the checkpoint know how fucked the storm is. There’s nothing we can do but watch the path of the road to not end up in a ditch, or worse, the pipeline. Of course, the checkpoint’s still timing us, that’s the rules and breaking the haul road’s speed limit is the kind of thing that’ll get you shit-canned.

French hangs the mic on the dash. “Hey, G.P.,” he says, picking up where he left off, “how’s a Green Peace turd like yourself do with the ladies?”

I fold the map across my legs. Doing twenty-five we’re still looking at forty minutes.

“You daydreaming about all that twat?”

“Being a Democrat isn’t the same as being in Green Peace,” I say. “Anyway, what were you guys doing in my wallet?”

“Calm down, Junior. We’ve got to be careful, in case we got a certified Commie on our crew.” French grins big, showing a few holes in his smile. “You’re paying enough attention to that clock for the both of us.” He taps the green numbers blinking on the radio. “How long you figure?”

“Forty minutes.”

“Jesus.”

“Could be worse.”

“Really?” French turns to me. “So this isn’t the first time you’ve driven the haul road, huh?”

“It is,” I say, though French knows as much.

He flings his hand at the windshield, his nails clanking against the glass. “This shit gets people killed.”

“What kind of rookies break a fucking drill?”

“Happens to the best of them. Your day will come.”

“Bullshit,” I say, and French shakes his head.

“Come on, it’s a long drive. Tell me about all that fresh-out-of-high-school ass you’re getting.”

“I’ve got a girlfriend.”

“No joke?”

“Name’s Sara.”

“Settling down at twenty-two? You really are wet behind the ears. So, how’s that going?”

The wipers blur back and forth across the windshield, without a chance of keeping up.

“What’d they do to their drill anyway?”

“Hit too much rebar, I guess. Don’t matter,” French says, jerking his thumb at the backseat, “we’ve still got to take them this one. So, she a hot little thing, your girl?”

“Fuck.”

“Nevermind. Shit.”

“I just don’t want to think about it.”

“Problems in paradise? Lay it on me, I’ve lost more women than you’ve met.”

“It’s all fucked,” I say, tapping my fingers on my knee, a nervous habit that drives Sara nuts.

French is hunched over the steering wheel trying to find the road.

“What could be fucked about twenty-two-year-old pussy?”

“Sara’s pregnant.”

He doesn’t take his eyes off the road, but it feels like he’s staring directly at me. “Shit, you got yourself in deep, didn’t you?”

“Believe me, I know.”

“You don’t know a damn thing.”

The snow is making me dizzy and I’m glad French is driving.

“Well, you two talked about it or what? How you leaning?”

“Like the Tower of Pisa.”

French laughs. “Yeah?” He sits back long enough to shift around a bit before hunching forward again. “When did you find out?”

“Couple weeks ago.” My last R&R, two weeks at home, sleeping with Sara, getting drunk at whatever bar we stumbled into, until one night she wanted to stay in. Watch a movie. “She went to a doctor the day before I flew back to Deadhorse.” I shove my hands between my thighs.

“Crap way to leave things.”

“Definitely.”

“What’s she think about it all?”

I fix my eyes on the dashboard. “She’s Irish Catholic, she wouldn’t ever… you know.” I still can’t believe she didn’t slap me just for saying the word.

The radio crackles. “You numb-nuts out there or what? Truck Two-O-Five did you read?”

French picks up. “You going to keep us warm?”

“We weren’t getting a response for over five minutes. What’s going on?”

“We didn’t hear shit from you until now,” French says.

“That’s not good. You guys need to be checking in like clockwork. How’s the road?”

“The road? Fuck off.” French slams the receiver back on its dock. “Assholes sitting there at a damn desk. You never want to be one of those guys, G.P., never.” He looks at me and I nod. “Those guys with desk jobs, they’ve forgotten what real work is.”

For a second I picture French as my father, that we’re driving to Fairbanks or something. Going camping, “Just a boys’ weekend,” he’d tell my mother. I look at French. I don’t know, but I imagine wherever my dad is he’s got a full set of teeth.

“I don’t think I can do it,” I say.

French taps the brakes and we start to fishtail, then skid back on track. He looks at me, his eyes ball bearings, his jaw tight.

“What? You little prick, you’re thinking of bailing? Listen, I’ve got two little girls. Been to jail twice. Compared to anything else this is the sweet life.”

“Sure,” I say.

He waves his arms at the blizzard. “This, right here, is a goddamn piece of paradise.”

“That why everybody talks about saving up for houses in Hawaii or Florida? It’s like the goddamn Alaskan state mantra.”

He digs into his jean pocket and pulls out a small metal poker chip. “You know what this is?” he asks, holding it in front of my face.

I shake my head.

“Five years sober. My first meeting was the day my wife told me she was pregnant.”

“I’m not a drunk.”

“Never said you were.”

The only sound is the heater on full blast, and I strain, wondering if I can hear the snow falling.

“Kids happen, G.P.,” French says, his voice quieter than before. “People do their best, it’s all they can. Your only choice is whether you’re going to raise that kid, or puss out.”

“I’ll be a horrible father,” I say.

“Jesus. You can’t get a much worse candidate for fatherhood than me, but I got my shit together. I work in this damn Popsicle stand six out of every eight weeks so my wife can be home to take care of our girls.”

“I don’t know the first thing about being a dad. I’m only twenty-two, you said it yourself.”

“I’ll say something else, too,” French says. “You don’t have much choice.” He lifts his hat and rubs his forehead.

“There are a lot of choices.”

“Name one.” French eases on the gas, but doesn’t stop. The snow swirls around us.

“Got one yet?”

I shake my head. We should be at the checkpoint in less than twenty minutes.

“Two-O-Five, you there?”

French doesn’t pick up. He takes his eyes off the road to look at me again.

“Well,” I say.

“Truck Two-O-Five. Two-O-Five.”

French squeezes the radio with his ash gray fingers. “We’re here,” he says. “Maybe twenty minutes out.”

“Why don’t you do the checking in next time? Say ten minutes?”

“Sure thing.”

We drive in silence and I strain to see the road. The brim of French’s Carhartt hat is touching the windshield. With the heater on the cab is thick with sweat. The tires slip, slight at first, then the bed of the truck is sideways. We’re spinning. I brace one hand on the seat and hold onto the handle above the door with the other.

“Mother-bitch, shit-ass,” French says, but it’s distant, like I’m a kid eavesdropping from the backseat.

We go off the road with a bump that sends my head into the roof, even with my seatbelt on. French is still pumping on the gas, trying to get us back on track, but we’re shit out of luck, and he knows it. The truck lurches as he lets off the pedal and we spit backward into the nothingness beyond the road. Sliding, we tip on our side. My body snaps forward, my hat falling off as I slam into the dashboard. There’s a short burst from the horn, French thrown into the wheel. Even though I don’t see anything out my window, I know I’m looking at the ground.

French is hanging over me, suspended by his seatbelt. The cab’s light is dim and flickering, but I can see his forehead’s starting to swell.

“Jesus fuck,” he says. “You all right, G.P.?”

I take a deep breath. “Yeah.” I can feel the lump growing on my own head, and the burn across my chest from the belt doing its best to hold me still.

“You know what stopped us don’t you?”

I nod, but he says it anyway.

“The pipeline.”

“How are we going to get out?”

“The only way we can,” he says. “My window.” He reaches for the crank on the side of his door, rolls the window down. The musty cab chills instantly. “Better pull on your coat.”

French shows his missing teeth. I reach below the seat, where I had stuffed my extra gear.

“I’m going to pull myself out, then you can pass me mine.”

French grabs the window frame with one hand and undoes his seatbelt with the other. His legs drop in front of my face. I smell the dried mud on the bottom of his Xtra Tuffs. He grunts and pulls himself halfway out of the window.

“Couldn’t see a tit out here if it was in your face,” he says. “Hand me my shit before I freeze to death.”

I unbuckle myself and grab his jacket, wadded up in the backseat. The concrete drill is in two pieces on the floor of the cab. I plant my feet on the door and stand up, reaching French’s jacket out the window.

“I think I should take a look around. See if the radio’s working.”

I hunch down and grab the mic, my hand already so cold it’s hard to grip. I hold down the button and am greeted by fuzz.

“This is truck Two-O-Five,” I say. “Do you read?” More fuzz. I try again with the same result. “I think it’s busted.”

“Shit.” I hear French push off the frame of the truck. “Snow’s over my knees,” he says. “Can you get out?”

I zip up my coat, pull on my gloves, and replace my baseball hat with a knit one that I pull over my ears. Reaching both hands out the window, I pull myself up and into the white.

“Drill’s broke, too,” I say, adjusting so I’m sitting on the door.

“We got enough to worry about. Get down here.” French is barely visible until I slide off the truck and land next to him. “We’ve got to check out the damage around back,” he says. “We’ll go around the bed until we find the pipeline.”

We walk with our hands out, holding onto the truck. I can hear French’s breathing ahead of me. He stops and I push between him and the truck. I reach out with my free hand, waiting to touch something solid. When I do, the snow around my legs is stained black and I lean forward. There’s a faint glow from the taillights, and I see the glinting rush.

French taps me on the shoulder, mumbling more cusses. “We can’t stay here.”

My glove is wet with oil, the familiar smell throws me back to my dad working on his truck in the driveway.

“What choice do we have?”

“The checkpoint can’t be far. We’ve got to find the road.” French slaps me on the back and turns around.

I turn my back to the growing pool of black snow and fight through the drift. At the front of the truck, French says if we follow the headlights we’ll find the road.

“If the bed’s in the pipeline,” he says, “the truck must be facing that way.” He takes his hand off the hood and pushes on. “Stay close.”

“Right behind you,” I say, sticking out a hand to touch his back.

The ground slopes upward and I feel gravel under my boots. The snow on the road is only shin high, but my legs feel like I’ve been running in sand.

“Should I have brought the drill?” I ask, frost budding on my lips.

“Busting the pipeline open, no one’s going to be worrying about a drill.” French’s breathing is growing heavier.

I pull the collar of my coat over my face, yank my hat down tighter. The first day of training they said to report spills of any liquid immediately. I never thought it would be more than a joke to use when someone was dumping the remains of a cup of coffee. But behind us product is spilling at a rate that causes heart attacks for environmentalists and oil tycoons both.

“How far do you think?”

“Not far, G.P.” French says.

I can feel his breath heating my cheeks.

“Got to keep warm.” He is by my side, putting an arm around my shoulder. He pulls me close, the way a father might.

People get lost in weather like this, everything looking the same, and for a moment I think it wouldn’t be so bad to disappear into the tundra. But French wrapping himself around me has got me thinking I would know when a kid needed comfort.

French coughs, spurts of frozen breath cracking the air. “Fatherhood’s not looking so bad now, is it?”

Though the cold is painful in my lungs, I laugh.

The wind picks up, whips through my jacket and hat, exposing the cracks, tearing at my skin. I focus on feeling the road underfoot, tell myself we’re still on gravel. In front of us is a blank canvas, an empty field of white. I stare ahead against the wind and snow, begging my eyes to be tricked into seeing the yellow light of a lantern, showing the way.



Ryan W. Bradley is the author of Prize Winners and Code for Failure. A novella, Winterswim, is forthcoming in December, 2014. He received his MFA from Pacific University and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.