Deadman’s Pass by Cathryn Klusmeier
Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction Prize
We sent him in there by himself.
Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map, and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for our dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say that deep down, we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say sending him in there for tire chains was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we’d been carrying out for a while now. Because any one of us could and should have gone in there instead. And by the time it really registered what we had asked him to do, by the time I realized he was truly alone in there, I found myself jamming a gas nozzle frantically back into a pump and haphazardly sliding across some frozen sludge in the parking lot as I began to run towards the front door of the Les Schwab tire dealership in La Grande, Oregon.
It was a snowy day—a couple feet at least and counting, which is why we were at the Les Schwab looking for tire chains in the first place. And as I opened the door of the Les Schwab, I saw him immediately. There he stood at the checkout counter in a room that overwhelmingly smelled of burnt popcorn and rubber and something floral. He stood with his hands in his pockets; his feet shifted from side to side on the checkered linoleum. The snow on his pants was melting in pools on the floor. There was a line behind him, and it was growing longer.
“Sir,” said a tall, slender man in a greasy jumpsuit standing behind the checkout counter.
But my father said nothing.
“Sir,” the man said again. And still my father stood there, muted.
“I’m sorry sir, but what exactly do you need?” said the man in the jumpsuit.
“Sir, can you hear me?” he said again.
If my father could hear him, he didn’t let on. He stood staring at something behind the counter. And as I walked through the crowd towards the front of the line, I could feel the man’s questions reverberate across the room and then fall flat in the depth of my father’s silence. The man in the jumpsuit spoke again and again my father didn’t speak. And in that next silent pause, the man in the jumpsuit began to pull back. It was a subtle sort of retreat—the man looked over his left shoulder for a moment. His eyes scanned the length of the room for another. He seemed to gaze at the back wall for a second too long. There were large posters covering the walls of this particular Les Schwab. Large posters filled with photographs of tires overlaid with big, neon yellow price tags and promises. Promises of long-term car care and lifetime tire guarantees and friendly customer services and smiles. There was an empty popcorn machine in the corner sitting next to a circle of under-stuffed couches where people sat and waited and now, were watching the man at the checkout counter. Above an empty coffee pot, there was a television turned to the Weather Channel informing us that we should not have been driving that day. Beyond that, the room was mostly quiet except for the squeaking of rubber soles on checkered linoleum and the mutterings of the growing mass of people waiting in line for the customer service desk. And of course, there was now the sound of a man in a jumpsuit becoming quickly agitated at the customer in front of him.
“Sir,” the man tried again, this time louder. “Can I help you?” But by the last question, the man’s voice no longer held the veil of patience. Despite what his name tag said, he was no longer interested in helping this man at the front of the line. There was something about my father’s silence that had unnerved him—a glimpse of something unnamed. By now I was standing right next to my father so the man in the jumpsuit shifted his attention to me. He turned to me like I owed him, and everybody else who was waiting behind us, an apology.
How quickly the room turned against us. We were taking up time and we were taking up space and it was getting darker and the line was getting longer and the snow kept falling and everyone needed chains on their tires and yet there stood my father, still silent and still staring at something behind the counter.
“We need to know if we can get through the pass,” I spoke up, finally—I was far too late and I knew it. I placed my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, so we were linked.
“We’ve been driving for the past three days,” I said, offering something—some semblance of an explanation. “We’re moving—most of our stuff is in the back of a U-Haul but we’re concerned about the snow. Can we put chains on our trailer? Can we make it through Deadman’s Pass?” I said. I risked a quick glance up at my father midway through my barrage of questions for the jumpsuit, but his gaze never met mine. He was still staring, still not moving, still not speaking. The large, dirty puddles on the floor surrounding my father’s feet were growing steadily in diameter.
No, we couldn’t make it through Deadman’s Pass with the U-Haul, the man in the jumpsuit said. No, they had no more chains to sell us. No, he didn’t know when the pass would be clear again. Tomorrow? A week? Two? No, the hotels were likely full by now. But yes, we could store the U-Haul behind the tire shop if we wanted to. No, they couldn’t guarantee that the trailer wouldn’t be broken into. We could leave it there, if we wanted—drive over the pass, then drive back and get it later, maybe. If getting over the pass was so important tonight. Come back some other day, the jumpsuit said. Come back with someone who was speaking this time. Come back when the winter had passed and the snow had left and there was sunshine here, again, maybe.
And with my hand through the crook in my father’s arm, I nodded to the jumpsuit. I led and my father followed. I turned away from the counter, away from melting snow, away from the silence and the tires and towards the crowd who was waiting in line. There was anger there, a sudden collection of glances channeled our direction. They had their own snow and tires and chains to deal with and they didn’t have all day to stand here. But what was anger in their glances—at the least, some confused annoyance—turned to something else when I led him away. I could see it. They were dogs who smelled a bear in the woods. They looked flustered, they shuffled their feet. They saw something in his face that I had been staring at for years and it frightened them.
The day the movers came to pick up our home and put it in a truck bound for Seattle, we were not ready. All morning, my mom and I were frantically packing, sifting through boxes of old wedding presents—auburn candlesticks and cheap glass vases, all in packaging never opened—remnants of my parents’ big Southern wedding that never did fit them. Which is why the boxes had remained boxed for nearly thirty years.
We didn’t have room for most of it. We were throwing things away. That morning, three of my aunts had come over early to collect most of the attic storage we couldn’t take with us. We scattered our things on the old ping-pong table and they claimed the stuff they wanted. My aunts were in tears. They gathered old, tarnished candlesticks and lacy tablecloths—the female wedding inheritances of our family circa 1800. They took the blue china, the oversized forks, and all other remnants of the past we didn’t have room for. We were tenth generation Arkansans, and we were getting rid of the evidence. My aunts asked us if we were sure we wanted to let it all go. They said surely I would someday want this passed down to me at my wedding. They gathered it in the back of their respective cars and left.
I was standing next to my mom in the kitchen of the house she built herself when the movers—two bearded middle-aged men who smelled of chewing tobacco and unwashed Carhartts— entered our house to pick up the boxes we were supposed to have packed already. They spoke with a twang; they moved quickly through our house, they surveyed our furniture. They told us what we could sell in auction and what we couldn’t. They told us what things were worth. They tracked in mud on my mother’s floors. They dropped a lamp.
“It must be a good job your husband got, what with you all pickin’ up and leaving so soon—moving across the country and sorts. Must be a real good job. Must be real good. Where you goin’? Washington—that’s right. I hear it rains something awful up there. Must be a real good job what with you movin’ and all. This here’s a real nice house. You built this yourself? Shit. Real good job it must be to leave this place.”
My mother paused and took in a breath through her teeth. I was holding translucent packing tape—I couldn’t find the end of the roll to pull out a good strand to shut the box of old sheets and frayed towels I was holding. Yet I paused with her. The moment dropped, it collapsed between us. We sat in silence for a moment too long. And then my mom smiled—a big, crisp, full-teeth smile that reminds you of all those things you think you know about Southern hospitality. She smiled at those men tracking dirt into the house she built herself, the men auctioning off her furniture. She told them it was a great job. She nodded up and down, still crisp, still smiling, still nodding. Because she couldn’t tell him there was no job. She couldn’t tell him the reason she had no address for him to send the moving van to was because there was no house to go to. She couldn’t even tell him why it was Seattle she had chosen, because it could have been anywhere, really. It just mattered that it wasn’t here. She couldn’t tell him that one day her husband had stopped talking, that he slept most of the day. That, after twenty-five years of working, he just stopped one day a year ago. That if you sent him to the grocery store for toilet paper and bread, he would come back with unripe mangoes and brown sugar. That sometimes he would get up at 3 a.m. and start making the bed with my mom in it. That doctors kept throwing out words like “mid-life crisis” and “depression” and asserting that these have many unexpected side effects. That he started watching movies beginning at nine in the morning, sometimes earlier. He started watching movies like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Bloody, war movies. He turned the volume up so high drowning everything else out until all you could hear were gunshots.
The drive from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Seattle, Washington, is thirty-one hours in good driving weather, but that was not the weather we had that January. That January, the roads in Kansas had turned to ice. Big, long sheets of ice that made the U-Haul we were towing slide haphazardly back and forth over the lane line. And because it was Kansas, every rest stop perpetually reminded us with magnets and stickers that there was no place like home, which felt like the definition of a cruel joke. And Kansas lead to Colorado and the Rockies, which then sent us to Wyoming and to Utah, which was this long trek of negative-degree wind that rocked the car for hours and made hissing noises where the old windows didn’t completely shut.
We didn’t have a place to live yet—four rental agreements fell through because of internet scams and confusion. While I drove, my Mom was on the phone explaining that no, we didn’t have any income, yes, we had a dog, no our credit wasn’t so great, but regardless you should definitely rent to us because we were really nice people. We ate Denny’s five-dollar Grand Slam breakfasts every morning and Subway’s five-dollar foot-long sandwiches every other meal. Five people for five dollars forever. We made it like this, diverting when the roads were bad. Stopping when the snow was too thick. Moving forward when we could. All the way to Le Grande, Oregon, and to Deadman’s Pass where we had to stop.
We sent him in there by himself. Sure, my mother was in the driver’s seat busy studying the map and I was occupied getting gas and Andrew was cleaning the windshield and Jacob was off looking for a place for my dog to pee, but regardless, we sent him in there by himself. If I’m honest with you, I’d say deep down we did it on purpose. If I’m honest with you, I’d say it was yet another test in a long series of unspoken tests we had been carrying out for a while now. Tests to see if my father was really changing. Mom, the boys, and I—we assigned him small tasks—things that not two years ago would already have been done long before we had even thought to ask. Little habits, routines my father had delighted in years before. Things like mowing the lawn. Fixing the car. Emptying the dishwasher. Getting up in the morning.
And when he failed, which he was doing more and more regularly those days, we did intricate cerebral acrobatics that created excuses in our minds so that we could reason away his absence. In our minds, if we admitted that we noticed, we would lose him. And every time we saw a glimpse of him again, every time I took him hiking in the woods or walking near the water, he started to laugh again. He talked a bit more.
One Christmas when I was home, I decided that we were going to run together, he and I. Every day we would put on our sweats and hats and go out into the rainy woods to run the trails. And one day, about a week into our training, he took off ahead of me, sprinting. He turned a corner and I lost him for a moment. And then I picked up speed and turned that same corner and he was gone. And then I paused and I panicked and I yelled his name. And then suddenly there was my father, leaping out of the woods from behind a tree, yelling “GOTCHA!” and then proceeded to lift me into the air, tickling and laughing and grinning. At that turn of the corner, he was back. He was cackling the way only he could cackle, he was looking me in the eye; he was skipping. He held his arms out like airplane wings yelling “RACE YA” behind him as he took off up the trail. We did this nearly every day for weeks. It took three miles of running to get glimpses of him like this. It was like clockwork. Three miles into certain runs he would start crying, weeping—asking me what had gone wrong and trying to make plans to make it right. Five miles in, the glimpses seemed more solid. But by the time we had cooled off, he started to revert. His clarity lasted all of 15 minutes after leaving the woods. And no matter how long or how far we ran it was the same every time. A glimpse. A small one, certainly, but enough to make us think we had jumped to conclusions too fast. Perhaps it was just depression, as so many had said. We scolded ourselves for thinking the worst. He was too young and too strong and too good. These tests we constructed were faulty, we unconsciously reasoned, he just needed more time and more chances. So, in the spirit of denial and opportunity, we sent him in to get chains for the tires.
A team of men in greasy jumpsuits showed us where we could park the U-Haul next to the trash cans. We were leaving all our possessions in the space next to the Les Schwab fenced-in trash heap. After backing it through the fence, we started taking out the necessities. Clothes, toothbrushes, medications, schoolbooks. My brothers, Andrew and Jacob—aged sixteen and seventeen—were technically delinquent because they had been out of school for too long. They were not enrolled in any schools because we did not have a house with an address that would allow us to enroll them.
Next to cardboard boxes and old tires we pulled all our stuff out and placed it in the snow. We stared at the supposed necessities of our lives strewn about in the snowy gravel patch between the trash cans and the back of the Les Schwab. Out came our clothes. Out came our pillows. Out came the dog food and our shoes and the winter coats and our sheets. Out came the cast iron skillet. The U-Haul housed all the supposed essentials and now here we were yet again whittling our stuff down, repacking our things, stuffing them into the back of our already stuffed car.
My mother and I were talking logistics with the owner of the Les Schwab so we stood with our backs to my father as he continued to pull out the rest of our stuff and put it in the snow. A few moments later, we heard a faint sound of alarm coming from the voice of my youngest brother, Jacob. I turned around to see him waving his arms faster and faster in the air.
“Dad—wait, no—Dad, stop—Dad, wait! What are you doing?” Jacob yelled, moving towards my father. He had started quickly putting everything back in the U-Haul. My father had first unpacked the trailer, put just about everything in the snow, and then suddenly, only a moment later, before we had a chance to put it in our car, started piling everything back into the U-Haul. It was a complete undoing of what he had just done. Turning at the sound of my brother’s alarm ,my voice followed with similar confusion and escalation. It was like watching a VCR tape being rewound. His movements were mechanical, nearly identical to the unpacking he had just done, but in reverse. Only a few minutes had gone by and suddenly this tape had rewound to the opening credits.
It was my mother who responded the slowest, yet with the most alarm. She turned, she stopped. She yelled and she never yells. She shrieked my father’s name. Once, twice, and then yelling again, more forcefully:
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
What is happening?
What is happening?
The four of us recoiled in unison. We paused, uncertain if we had broken something—an old, hidden wound split wide open now. Our cries carried that stench of admission—an acknowledgement that our unspoken trepidation had not only weaseled its way to the surface, but there it was, shouted into the hills towards Deadman’s Pass. Because we knew what had happened. We had just thrown dynamite into the hillside of that snowy mountain pass. And so there we stood, frozen and silent outside the Les Schwab, waiting for the avalanche we knew had to come. Nike sneakers | Sneakers
Honorable Mention, Creative Nonfiction Prize