Even at a Distance by J.L. Austin

Even at a Distance

J.L. Austin

Even at a distance, there was something about that Caltrans worker that made the mid-afternoon air feel hotter.

Perry thought this to himself as one would say it aloud and instinctively reached for the Starbucks cup, which was already glazed with condensation 90 minutes into the drive. Part of the issue was that it was actually, objectively warm. The steering wheel was uncomfortable to touch. He could even smell the heat coming off the vinyl armrest. Perry took a sip from the cup, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and tried to scan the road ahead of him for signs of movement. He was four cars behind the pilot vehicle, which idled like a predator in wait. Mr. Caltrans was a bored-looking speck of orange on a shimmering highway reduced to one lane. He kept raising his arm up and down, checking what looked to be his phone. Behind Mr. Caltrans, a cluster of tractors and diggers were parked in the shade; behind the equipment huddle, an enormous pile of rocks, mud, and a tree or two had pooled impressively onto the road from the nearby slope.

Highway Patrol had reported the slide at 6:35 AM—too early for Perry but perfect timing for Ma, who was already well into her third cup of coffee and second round of online poker. Ma paid attention to things like road conditions. She had paid extra special attention today, however, given that Perry was finally set to leave for good. Her scrutiny—over the weather report, the Highway Patrol feed, even the oil change sticker on his car—made him nervous. More than once, he thought about staying put. Riley was always moaning on about the rent in the city. He claimed that people there never looked at you directly, that people made you feel like some kind of pervert for just saying hello. But Riley had always been prone to exaggeration and resentment—qualities that never would have thrived in a household kept by Ma.

What mattered was that Perry was finally on the road. Between the boxes jammed in the back and a blind spot that could only have been approved by 1980s automotive engineers, the rearview mirror was virtually useless. Peering into the driver’s side mirror, however, Perry was able to see the growing number of cars snaking around behind him. His own car made a brief sighing sound but dutifully continued chugged along in the heat. Suddenly chagrined by his lack of car knowledge, Perry checked the temperature gauge on the dashboard. It wasn’t yet at the midline, which he assumed was a good thing. However, it occurred to him that he had been sitting on the highway now for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. Even at a steady idle, surely he was burning through the gas— paid for in half by Ma. Looking up, he narrowed his eyes at the other cars in front of him. No brake lights. Just stillness. Hesitating for a moment, Perry set down the Starbucks cup, reached up, and turned off the ignition. The churn of the engine cut to a quiet tick.

Further ahead, Mr. Caltrans seemed to be texting with one hand while holding his stop sign in the other. Perry briefly wondered how much the roadside worker was paid per hour. He would never have told this to Ma, but there was something visually appealing in the worker’s stance, even at a distance. Something jaunty, like a modern-day, roadside cowboy—equally at home with a shovel, a sign, or a cellphone. At one point, Mr. Caltrans kicked a rock, which pinged off a nearby backhoe. The heat didn’t seem to bother him at all. For the first time since he’d left, Perry began to relax a little.

Just then, the car in front of him— a sporty little coupe—rocked back and forth. The doors opened, and a man and woman got out, stretched, and met each other on the gravel shoulder. The two of them seemed to have brought their ongoing conversation with them; the man gestured dramatically as he spoke while the woman interjected with small, forceful remarks directed at the ground. The man lit a cigarette, and the woman said something sharp. The man issued a retort and turned to scan the horizon. After a minute, the woman, shaking her head, marched back to the car and wrenched the vehicle’s door back open. A small, wiry-haired dog dropped to the ground— a sweet-faced mutt, Perry thought— and excitedly sniffed at the surroundings while the couple resumed their exchange.

Three cars up, Mr. Caltrans was putting away his phone and fumbling for a walkie talkie. He held it up to his ear, then spoke a quick word into the receiver. Craning up in his seat, Perry saw a brilliant flash in the distance from the southbound direction. That would be the pilot vehicle, he thought, making its way slowly towards them on the other side of the slide. Although it was probably too early still, Perry turned the key in the ignition, and the engine rumbled back to life. A box in the backseat dislodged itself, slid forward, and deposited two cookbooks directly onto the center console.

Perry’s head jerked at the sudden sound of shouting. A string of profanities filtered in through the passenger side window. The couples’ argument seemed to be gathering in intensity. Battling the stubborn pile of cookbooks, Perry spotted the action through the dirty windshield. Both the man and the woman were screaming at each other in a way that felt inhumane to witness. The highway dust began to whip up around their figures, stirred by the slow procession of incoming traffic. Both of them resembled cobras coiled in a desert showdown. Startled and unleashed, the dog bolted for a nearby bush, but the man snatched him up by the collar. The poor mutt yelped in pain, but the man continued to grip him tightly as the shouting match reached a crescendo.

Perry, who did not make a habit of confronting strangers, suddenly felt stirred to action. He did not want to get involved in other people’s business— and this definitely counted as “other people’s business”—but the dog’s cries raised the tiny hairs on the back of his neck and even roused the sly, thick hairs that sometimes grew up on his shoulder blades. Perry, who was forced to pluck them alone with only the aid of a mirror, did not like to think about these hairs.

So he rolled down his window. His palms slipping awkwardly on the hot steering wheel, he clambered up out of his seat to stick his head out of the car.

“Hey!” he shouted directly at the man.

His cry was drowned out almost immediately by the horn blast of the pilot vehicle, which swept by Perry’s car in an ugly cloud of fuel and red dust. Perry’s eyes instantly watered as he was forced back down in his seat, sputtering. Guided by that familiar siren known to all highway voyagers— a tattered banner that read FOLLOW ME— car after car glided past. Perry hit the button to roll up his window, which complied with a sad, wheezing sound. An eighteen-wheeler guttered by, throwing a rock into the corner of Perry’s windshield that connected with a loud crack.

The final car passed with a brief lurch of acceleration that felt decidedly smug to Perry. Putting on his wipers, he watched as the couple reappeared before him in a grimy tableau. The dog was no longer yelping but continued to twist helplessly in the man’s grasp. The woman was shaking her phone an inch from the man’s nose, screaming at a volume that would have given the horn blast a run for its money. Within a single moment, Perry felt a kaleidoscope of emotions: embarrassment at having been sandblasted in front of the Caltrans employee, pity for the sad mutt, and relief that no one—not even Ma—had ever yelled at him in such a way.

Just then, the floorboards beneath Perry began to vibrate in an unfamiliar way. Assuming the old car had been idling for too long, Perry moved the shifter to DRIVE. The vibrating increased. The rock from earlier slid off the roof and down the windshield on a trembling path toward the hood. Looking through the windshield, Perry spotted the couple frozen in place, staring up the slope to the left. Even at a distance, Perry could tell that their eyes were filled with fear. With one last twist, the mutt bit the hand of the man, shrugged off its collar and sprinted away southbound at an exhilarating clip.

Something like a groan issued from the slope and the sparse trees began to lean forward. Instinctively, Perry put his foot down hard on the gas. The car whined as it attempted to turn 10 m/s into 6 but jumped forward with surprising urgency. The cars in front of Perry had already put 25 meters and counting between them. Trying to ignore the growing roar from the slope to his left, Perry swerved and barely missed a small boulder that came bouncing from the adjacent lane. A mangled traffic cone rose up to add another nick in the windshield. The car was quickly gaining speed, but Perry was struck with the sudden fear that his mother would soon be reading about him on the latest Highway Patrol dispatch, buried in a sad grave beneath the mass of an entire hillside. Son moves away, never to return alive.

But another bright spot of orange was growing in the windshield, and Perry instinctively flinched. No, not a traffic cone. The Caltrans man.

“Shit,” Perry said simply. He braked hard. Reaching over, he flung open the passenger door. The Caltrans man threw himself in, followed quickly by the mutt.

“Go,” said the Caltrans man. Perry floored it, and the aging sedan shot forward. Cookbooks slammed into the boxes behind their heads; just beyond the inadequate rearview mirror, the mountain advanced onto the highway with the slow, awesome power of a god. The sound of tree trunks snapping was keenly heard. The ground continued to tremble, even at 100 yards. Or maybe that was just Perry shaking.

His foot remained pressed to the accelerator until a gentle hand clad in a work-issue glove fell on top of his own, reminding him that he had passengers. Perry forced a glance to the right. Up close, the Caltrans man was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. His eyebrows, bushy and powdered with mud, were wrinkled in a look of earnest concern. His jawline was dotted with a mix of stubble and the occasional acne spot. People probably thought he was younger than his actual age, Perry thought. The man took off his other glove and rested it on the mutt, who sneezed but consented to being held.

“Wow,” Perry found himself saying. “Just wow.” Two fire engines approached in the opposite lane at high speeds, whipping past in a flurry of noise and lights. Probably from the mountain station near the summit. Perry chanced a glance in the mirror and watched them recede in the distance.

“I know,” the man said. “For more than a second there, I didn’t think we were going to make it.” He looked at Perry; for a single instant, all Perry could see was a halo of Day-Glo orange, and knew that the familiar logo on the California roadworker’s vest would remain burned into his memory like the indelible spell of a religious icon. When the man smiled, no amount of dome lights manufactured by 21st century automotive engineers could compete.

“We did, though,” Perry said. And then— “I think we’re going to be alright.”

About the Author

J.L. Austin is a Hapa (of mixed Asian descent) writer based out of California. She teaches English at a small college in California; her courses feature themes ranging from cyborgs to death in cartoons. She has a weakness for video games and cats.