Empty Sky Chapter 4 – Al Carsons

Love like a Whirlwind, Loss like a Hurricane

Al Carsons’ leathery, calloused palms pushed down on the white, threadbare vinyl of his ’77 Ford F-150’s benchseat. It crackled as he slid out of his pickup. He liked the crackling. He liked the cold of the knee-deep, Hallock, Minnesota snow when he stepped out. He reached back in for his lunchbox and blew a kiss to the empty seat as his eyes passed over the front seat rifle mount next to the gearshift.

He kept his pickup all these years because of that benchseat; he and Effie could sit side by side and not have to reach over an armrest to give each other a little pat or sneak a little kiss. He brought it home to show her, a long time ago, half a century ago in fact, when he and Effie were just starting out, all shiny new, red with white trim, a five-speed half-ton longbed and they went for a drive, my god did they go for a drive, he with one hand on the wheel and one around her, holding her close, only letting go when he had to shift. Not everybody could handle a rear-drive longbed manual in this heavy snow, then or now.

He patted the seat where Effie’d sit. She told him they made Charlie that day they went for their first drive in their new pickup. He taught Charlie and Ben how to drive and hunt in that same pickup.

Now, like him, the hinges squeaked a bit.

He closed the door and patted the windshield. “Just you and me now, hey, old girl?”

His green wool pants swished between his thighs as he waded through low drifts, sounding almost like breaths against the shhsing whispers of the falling snow. His black workboots cut a path towards his plow and he thought of explorers in the Arctic. He stopped under the maintenance depot’s one streetlight. In one step his shadow shifted from tracing back to his truck to stretching out towards his plow.

He liked being called for double-overtime during storms. Storms were great. Especially these early winter storms. A mess of whirling winds, little specks of light bouncing back as his headlights fought the darkness, black night sky slowly gaining color as if slowly gaining sight.

And the cold. Cold that made vinyl crack. Even with the big plow’s defrosters on full he could still see his breath misting at the end of his shift.

And the solitude. Quiet. Nobody to listen to him go on when he talked to the wind. That’s what Effie called it. She’d gone to that drunk driver five summers back and the two boys, Charlie and Ben, left him, one to a holdup and the other in Afghanistan.

He knew something was wrong when the Death Notification Officer showed up in his Class A’s. He’d seen Ben in his Class A’s once. He and Effie were so proud, their Ben in a parade in his honor, one of our own being deployed to the other side of the world.

Effie kept hugging Ben and messing up his uniform and saying, “If only Charlie were here to see you. He’s so proud of you, Ben, you know he’s smiling down on you waiting for you to catch the football.”

“I know, Ma. I know.”

“And you make sure you come back home to us, you hear?”

“I will, Ma. I will.”

But that drunk driver took Effie and a week or so later the Death Notification Officer knocked on his door and they talked and shook hands and the Death Notification Officer explained that the bomb that took Ben out didn’t really leave enough to ship home but Ben was going to get a proper military funeral just the same and Al shouldn’t worry about anything, Ben was coming home.

When Al couldn’t see the Army car anymore, when it had passed through the fields and trees and into the night, he went to his closet and got out his deer rifle and put one shell in the chamber and locked it in the front seat rifle mount and drove a little west because any further north he’d be in Canada and Al didn’t want to cause any international incidents.

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