Eddie hung a right onto Linden Court, a short dead end, and pulled over to the curb beside some blue recycle bins. He eased the Civic into Park, and the doors locked with a clunk. He checked the rearview mirror. His daughter’s girl, Mia, just 10 months, was still conked out in the car seat. Her head and right shoulder sagged against the seatbelt, as if she were an astronaut buckled into a capsule. The fuzzy straps of her gray knit cap dangled beside her ears, framing her look of serious concentration.
Eddie scratched the stubble on his chin and sank down behind the wheel. Some sleet started to tap on the windshield. He let the car run, the heater exhaling warm breath through the vents. On the radio, the Beatles channel was droning quietly through “Tomorrow Never Knows”: “Turn off your mind and float downstream…” He liked to sing along to Beatles songs with Mia, inserting her name: “Love you every day, Mia, guess you know it’s true.” Or, “Mia, I need somebody. Mia, not just anybody.” Sometimes she would sing along in a gleeful open-mouthed “Ahh-ooh.”
They were on their way to the library. He helped take care of her a couple days a week. Mia liked to pull picture books from the bottom shelves onto the carpet, where she’d sort them into “Nah” for no and an excited nod for yes. Or she’d play with the train set, hoisting herself up to the edge of the small table, holding on for balance. She’d methodically dismantle the wooden tracks and hand him one piece at a time, followed by the train cars, unhooking their magnetic tabs. Eddie would pile them up on the table next to him. He’d tried showing her how the train cars rolled along the tracks, following their curves, but she wasn’t interested.
Eddie checked the rearview. Her eyelids fluttered and her hands twitched, but she settled right back in. The sleet was coming down harder now, glazing the windshield. Even though it was morning, the sky had darkened enough that the orange streetlights popped on. He decided to let her nap a while longer; her mom had told him Mia was up early and hadn’t slept on the half-hour commute into the city. Eddie hadn’t driven more than a few blocks when Mia nodded off.
The Beatles had moved onto the middle eight of “Rain”: “Rai–ai-ai-ai-uh-ain, I don’t like.” Eddie flipped through email on his cellphone and deleted the spam, then closed his eyes to rest a moment. The heater’s warmth suffused the car’s interior with an all-enveloping embrace.
When Eddie woke up, the engine was dead. His hands cramped in the cold. Snow was piled high against the windows, which were crusted with ice. He couldn’t see a thing. Even the rearview mirror was frosted over. He unclicked his seatbelt and wrenched himself to turn around, a sharp pain stabbing his side. The car seat was empty. Panic flooded in. He fumbled for his cellphone, but the battery was dead. He turned the key in the ignition: dead too. How could Mia be gone? The car had been locked. Maybe, he thought, he had called her mom to come get her when the storm hit. He couldn’t remember, it was all blank, a big white absence. He squeezed his eyes shut to focus, but nothing came back.
Someone banged on his window. “Hey!” a woman’s voice called. She knocked again. “Hey, you need help?”
The window was stuck. He pried at the door handle, but his fingers were stiff. “Wait,” he called back. He pushed the unlock button. “Can you pull the door open?”
“The snow’s blocking it. Let me get a shovel,” she said. “My house is close by.”
He thrust his hands in his coat pockets to warm them up and waited. He felt sure Mia must be ok, he’d call her mom as soon as he could. He felt different, weaker somehow, but he couldn’t figure out why.
A shovel started scraping beside the car, in hard metallic crunches, and he felt a rush of relief. This neighbor would help him.
The car door swung open with a whoosh, and a woman in a blue parka leaned in. “You okay?” She was young, a college kid, which surprised him. Her expression was intent.
“I think so, but the car’s dead.”
“I’ll grab my mom’s car and use jumper cables. You warm enough? You’re almost blue.”
“Thanks, I’m fine.”
She looked in the back seat, then reached behind him and pulled Mia’s pink fleece blanket over his shoulders. “Here. That should help. You sit tight and I’ll be right back.”
She gently shut the car door. He closed his eyes and felt himself relax. The blanket felt soft and warm.
He could hear an older woman calling in the distance. Her voice sounded familiar. “Mia, Mia, is he okay?”
He was almost asleep now. His legs shivered, and he peeked up at the rearview mirror, which had cleared up. He didn’t recognize the old man who stared back at him, thin hair scraped across his scalp, wrinkly pouches under his eyes, and a ridiculous long white beard like a Halloween costume of a wizard. Was someone playing a prank on him? He tugged at the beard but it was stuck on.
“I think so, Mom!” Mia called back. “I’m going to help him get his car started!”
“Mia,” thought Eddie as he drifted off. “Mia, you know I need someone.”
Gary Duehr has taught creative writing for institutions including Boston University, Lesley University, and Tufts University. His MFA is from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 2001 he received an NEA Fellowship, and he has also received grants and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the LEF Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Journals in which his writing has appeared include Agni, American Literary Review, Chiron Review, Cottonwood, Hawaii Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review.
His books include Winter Light (Four Way Books) and Where Everyone Is Going To (St. Andrews College Press).