Wendy A. Skinner
Dorcas let up off the gas, but when she pumped the pedal, the engine sputtered again and died. That’s when an amber light flickered on the dashboard before returning to black.
Dorcas hit the steering wheel. “Idioto
,” she said, and flicked on the hazard lights.
Frank had promised to fill the tank before leaving for his conference, but told her he’d deal with the electrical problems after he came back from Seattle. Dorcas found the American saying, out of sight, out of mind, especially handy when it came to describing her husband. She was probably the last thing on his mind while presenting his paper, Climate Change—The Next Ice Age.
If the man on the motorcycle hadn’t stopped for her, Dorcas might still have sat in the Jeep on the shoulder of Highway 61 with cars impatiently honking as the gap between her and the RV ahead widened. She managed to pull over half way, but only a few feet onto the shoulder. Not long ago, a howling fire engine and a ladder truck had roared up from behind and passed her in a stream of fireworks. An ambulance had followed shortly thereafter. She assumed she would have to wait, but for what? For a trooper to help her when clearly some greater tragedy lay farther ahead?
From behind the jeep came a low, nearly undetectable buzz that grew into a throaty rumble until it drummed outside her door. A dark figure on a motorcycle stopped and a black leather-gloved fist rapped on her fogged up window.
“Hey, need some help?” a voice said. Dorcas cracked her window and poked her head out into the frigid night air. The fist belonged to a man wearing a thick leather jacket and a German WWII style helmet. Goggles obscured his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” The moment Dorcas spoke, the man cut the engine on the motorcycle. “I didn’t mean for anyone to stop.”
He planted his feet firmly on the asphalt and pulled his goggles up to rest against his forehead. The glow of passing headlights illuminated his eyes, freshly ringed from the impression of the goggles. A trim salt and pepper goatee framed red lips. He shifted his body in a way that made Dorcas self-conscious. It frightened her—pleasantly surprised her. With the involuntary jolt beneath her skin, an image of her first boyfriend flashed in her mind. She took a deep breath in and out. “I think I ran out of gas.”
“Been stuck here long?” His thick resonant voice, so unlike Frank’s, calmed her.
“Where’re you headed?”
“You’ve got a ways to go on one hell of a cold night. It’s not too bad here, but it sounds like it’s snowing farther up the highway.” She could see his breath each time a car drove past.
It was only mid-September, a sunny day until that evening when she drove farther north and the sky dissolved into an overcast gray blanket. The freak drop in temperatures along Lake Superior’s North Shore had taken Dorcas by surprise. She’d loaded the rear of the Jeep with the vacuum, cleaning supplies, empty boxes, the weed whip and lawnmower, everything she needed to get the cabin ready for winter. If only winter would wait. She looked forward to the solitude of her work before Frank joined her after the conference, but since both children had left for college, this would be the first time she and Frank would have the cabin to themselves. What a frightening thought.
“I’m on my way to meet friends at Dixie,” said the man. “I can drop you off in Two Harbors at Jerry’s. He can help you.” He raised his eyes in question.
Dorcas hesitated. If Frank were there, he’d have made her walk to town before letting her accept a ride from a man like this. But he wasn’t there, so she grabbed her purse from the seat. “Fantastic,” she said, hit the door lock, and shut the door.
The man pulled off his helmet and said, “Wear this.” He handed it to her before pulling a black knit cap over his balding head. A dark pony tail curled out from under the back side. He pulled the goggles back over his eyes. “Hop on.” She climbed on behind the man, and he kick-started the bike.
Dorcas had ridden plenty as a teenager, perched on the back of a Suzuki dirt bike, squeezing her boyfriend’s torso between her knees, the tropical air breezing over her scalp with her black mane tangling behind her. Some days he used to pick her up from school and ride through the potholed, dirt streets back to her parents’ house for lunch. Other days he took her to his apartment in the city where they made love, the buses outside grinding their gears and raising clouds of blue exhaust that floated in through the barred window.
Dorcas clung to the man’s leather jacket as they rode past shadowy forests of evergreens and birches. His tree trunk of a back shielded her except for where the wind cut through her jeans. She might have been embarrassed riding on the back of this motorcycle now, a hulking black animal with studded leather saddlebags, but Dorcas gave it little thought. In spite of her circumstances—or because of them—for the next mile and a half, she felt more secure in this old, familiar position than she had for a long, long time.
They came to Two Harbors and took a side street off the main road to avoid traffic that had jammed up at the succession of stoplights—odd for this time of night. They stopped on the far side of town at a gas station.
“Here you are,” the man said, the motorcycle idling in a low, rumbling purr.
Dorcas climbed off the machine and handed the helmet back to the man. “I’m sorry for any trouble—“
“Are you kidding me? No trouble, no more than this cold snap.”
“Thank you anyway,” she said, and fished a ten dollar bill out from her purse.
“Whoa.” He waved his hand. “You keep that.”
“Join me for a beer instead. It’s fish fry night at Dixie,” he said and pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “I bet you’re real hungry.”
The man dropped his thumb.
“No, I’m sorry, I mean—Thank you,” she said, trying to keep her head clear. “I’d better just get on to Grand Marais.”
“Where exactly are you from?” It took him longer than most strangers to ask this question.
Her answer raised only one of his eyebrows, instead of the usual two. “Where in South America?”
“No kidding,” he said, and nodded, chuckling to himself.
“You know Bolivia?”
“Spent more than a few weeks backpacking from Cuzco through La Paz and down to Santa Cruz—“
“That’s where I’m from,” Dorcas interrupted. It was rare any Minnesotans knew Bolivia, let alone Santa Cruz, the large city that lay a half hour ride from her village.
The man whistled. “I could tell you a story or two.”
“You know what we called people like you? Hippies.” Dorcas pronounced the word: Hee-pees. In the dry season, the Rio Pirai, a shallow, sandy ribbon of water rippled out from the base of the Andes and past her lowland village before weaving north out of the savanna and into the Amazon basin. When she and her bikinied girlfriends used to lie on its hot sandbars, it wasn’t unusual to spot long-haired, North American vagabonds bathing naked downstream.
“That was back in my wilder days.” He winked.
Dorcas smiled. “What do you do now, in your tamer days?”
“I’m an electrician. I wire special hazard fire protection systems.”
“Ooh. Still sounds wild.”
“Not so much. My job is to take the wild out, so it doesn’t burn the house down you could say—but that doesn’t mean I can’t put it back in on the weekends.” He paused and shifted his weight on the seat of the bike. “Bolivia, huh?”
Neither of them spoke for a moment, long enough for the man’s eyes to glide over Dorcas’ body. She wished she were more presentable, not mummified in layers of shirts and sweaters beneath her jacket. The man’s eyes rested on hers. Heat rose to the surface of Dorcas’ cheeks.
“Santa Cruz.” He chuckled to himself. “Where did you drive up from tonight?”
The man gazed out at the bumper to bumper traffic and shook his head. “Santa Cruz. Minneapolis. You city gals, always in a hurry to get nowhere.” A necklace of ruby tail lights beaded up the darkened highway out of town and disappeared over a long rise. “Someone expecting you?”
“No, it’s just that—” She’d already begun before she could stop herself from finishing her well-worn habit of tying herself to Frank. “My husband.”
“Oh,” the man said, his eyes wavering from the distant traffic. “There’s a chance the snow might come this way. If it does, I won’t be riding back to Duluth. Not tonight, anyway. Forget Jerry and Dixie. How about you go ahead, get some gas, and I’ll take you back to your car?”
In spite of the open ride in the crisp night air and the wind blowing through her jeans to freeze her knees cold, the heat had gathered in a wave beneath Dorcas’ jacket and inside her bra. She had the urge to strip it all off.
“All right.” Dorcas smiled at the man. “That would be great.”
She walked into the convenience store shaking as if she’d drunk five cups of coffee. After using the restroom, refreshing the lipstick on her full lips and washing off the mascara that had smeared beneath her eyes, she found a gas can and brought it to the check out. Outside, the man waited, smoking a cigarette as he stood beside his bike. Jerry wasn’t working that night, but an older woman behind the convenience store counter was.
“Ran out of gas, huh?” The attendant asked. Her ill-fitting uniform pinched at her armpits. A plastic name tag with "Elizab th" on it hung crookedly from the front pocket. She looked up and down at Dorcas as if it were a sin for a forty-year-old woman wearing black eye liner and red lipstick to run out of gas. Dorcas didn’t need to see any more of the chastising look she was accustomed to from her husband. The attendant’s expression shifted from accusation to doubt as snow began to streak through the glare of the flood lights outside. “Even with gas, you won’t be going anywhere soon,” she said as she handed Dorcas a receipt. “They got a crash up at Betty’s Pies. A semi and a car. Word is there’s a fire.”
When Dorcas reappeared with the gas can, the man insisted on filling it for her. It was the first time she’d stood next to him and he towered over her. He dropped the cigarette before operating the pump and extinguished it with the heel of his cowboy boot. In the glare of the fluorescent light, ornate silver plates flashed on the backs of his heels like Hermes’ wings.
“I’m sorry. You were right,” she said. “I was in a hurry to get nowhere.”
“The woman inside said there’s a bad accident ahead that’s blocking the highway.”
“I’ll probably just get a hotel room for the night.”
“Now you’re talking sense. I’m guessing it’ll be late before it clears and by then, who knows what the weather will be like.” He nodded to the few flakes swirling down from the sky. “Wouldn’t want to break your pretty neck twisting that Jeep of yours around a telephone pole.”
“It’s his Jeep, not mine,” Dorcas said.
“What’s the difference?”
“He’d probably be more worried about raising his insurance rates.” She winced, trying to make a joke of it.
“Now that’s a shame,” the man said, and laid his hand on top of hers, its warmth penetrating through his glove. She surrendered the can to him. While the man filled it, Dorcas walked back and leaned against the convenience store’s window. She breathed through her nose and counted to ten to calm her racing heart. She called Frank.
He was probably out celebrating after having presented his paper with his sound, but controversial theory: When the Arctic’s Ice Cap melts completely, its fresh water will stall the northward flow of the Gulf Stream and set Europe into a cooling tailspin. By 2022, Europe will have entered a modern ice age. She’d heard it a million times.
She was glad that Frank didn’t pick up. She preferred to leave him messages. “Hi, how’d your paper go?” Dorcas said into her cell phone. He’d made her promise to call him when she got to Grand Marais. “It’s starting to snow and there was an accident on the road that blocked traffic for a while, but I got through. I’m almost to the cabin.”
Like the warm Gulf Stream, the children had moderated the cool and growing indifference between her and Frank. Now, since the children had left and Dorcas had begun volunteering as a bilingual advocate at a women’s shelter, she and Frank spoke less and less. At first she thought she was different from her clients, but it didn’t take long for her to recognize that she was wrong. It didn’t matter if they spoke Spanish or English, if their best friends were cleaning women or lawyers, or if they lived in Powderhorn Park or on Lake of the Isles. As much as she told her clients to take control and change their lives, she was no shining example. She’d become as dependent on her husband as much as these women had become dependent on their men: she defined herself by this relationship, for better or for worse.
With the gas can full and the man waiting on the bike, Dorcas returned.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” the man said. Dorcas clipped the helmet’s strap under her chin again and he offered his hand in an exaggerated gesture of assistance. “Climb aboard, señora.”
“Grácias, señor.” She put her hand in his, smiling, enjoying this game, and climbed back on the motorcycle. The man cocked the throttle and they rumbled out from under the station’s overhang. She held the jug to her chest with one arm and clung to his jacket with the other. Gasoline fumes rose from the canister. Her jacket would smell like this for weeks.
By the time they found the Jeep, what little snow there was had quit. The Jeep stuck out farther in the lane of traffic than Dorcas remembered when the motorcycle slipped behind it. She dismounted, set the jug down, and rummaged through her purse for her car keys.
,” Dorcas said. Her heart dropped into her stomach. “Ay, dios mio. My keys aren’t here.” She could hear the "I-told-you-so´s" from Frank. Dorcas took off her glove and dug through her purse again. She knelt and scattered its contents across the dampened asphalt: cell phone, a hairbrush, pens, pencils, tampons, a compact, perfume, lipsticks, earrings, a tin of mints, birth-control pills, a Saint Christopher medal—everything but the keys to the Jeep.
“Ma’am,” the man said.
Dorcas looked up.
The man pulled his goggles up off his face and onto his cap. He swiped his hand over his forehead and around his neck. A dimple punctuated each of his cheeks when he smiled.
“Do you have a stuffed animal hanging from your key ring?”
He pointed to the Jeep’s interior. She stood, put her glove back on, and held her hands to the window to block out the glare from a passing car. A miniature white llama on a key chain dangled from the ignition. Dorcas covered her face with her hands and rested her forehead against the cold glass. This was the third time in the last month she’d locked the keys into something—the house, the car, now the jeep.
did he call her?
She stood erect again, took a deep breath of the frigid air, and turned towards the man.
“My name isn’t ma’am
, it’s—” She almost said it, the Greek name that her mother had christened her with, after the Biblical widow who dedicated her life to others, the name that inevitably received awkward looks when Frank introduced her to colleagues. She started over again.
“My name is Tabitha
,” the man repeated slowly, breathing life into the Hebrew translation of her name. “Well then, nice to finally meet you, Tabitha.” He extended his hand for a handshake. “My name is Pete.”
She stared at him, paralyzed as she held her breath and let his hand hang empty in the air. His smile faded.
“You’re going to need another lift back to town.”
She pulled the muscles between her eyebrows taut to keep from crying.
“Hey now,” he said, and pressed his hand to her arm.
In spite of her late start and the cold and the accident and the traffic and the empty gas tank and the attendant’s suspicious gaze, initially Dorcas had persisted in getting to the cabin as planned. Then, she’d cracked open a window of possibility, to diverge from the logic, to change her fate—to spend the rest of the night, the weekend—her life—by her choosing. Now it seemed like a foolish game that made her question not only this man, the one person who’d helped her, but herself. You need to think things through, Frank’s words banged in her head. But she had, she’d done what was expected of her—though not necessarily in the right order: Her father sent her to the United States for university, she got a boyfriend, got pregnant, got married, and raised a family. And now, right now, what was left? This jeep. These keys. This man
But he was Peter
. She couldn’t deny the connection. Like Frank’s lecture about the oncoming ice age, her mother had told her the story over and over again of Dorcas, the widows’ friend, and the Apostle Peter.
“I’m sorry, I just—” Dorcas broke her silence. “Your name.”
Before she met Frank, she’d never tired of interpreting events in her life through the lenses of saints, destiny, and love—superstitious subjects her mother and aunts talked about to no end. The blood of her youth pumped through her heart. Regardless of what Frank might have thought or said, this was a sign. This man’s name was a good omen.
And it came to pass in those days, that she was sick, and died…all the widows stood by him weeping… But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning to the body said, Tabitha, arise.
And she opened her eyes…
Pete mounted the motorcycle and patted the seat behind him. Dorcas climbed on once more. As the engine popped and rumbled back towards Two Harbors, she wrapped her arms around his thick waist and squeezed tight, nestling her chin in his shoulder and smelling the leather of his collar.
Her mother and father boasted to their friends and relatives about her life, how she’d married an American professor and didn’t have to work like other American wives did while she raised their children. “Ideal,” they said, but that was exactly the perfect domesticity that she’d hoped to leave behind in Bolivia. When she got pregnant, she was a semester away from her psychology degree and had convinced herself she’d never want or need to use it anyway—until last week when the shelter’s director asked if she was interested in a crisis counselor position. I’m sorry, she’d told the director, and explained her failings. When she was younger she’d imagined that coming to the United States meant living like those women on the television shows, tall, skinny blondes with careers who defended the falsely accused or healed the sick, all the while jumping in and out of bed without consequences. And, they never apologized to anyone.
Pete pulled up under the awning at Jerry’s again. Inside, the attendant helped a customer with a blue gallon of wiper fluid.
“Looks like the Wicked Witch is still watching her castle tonight,” Pete said as he and Dorcas dismounted. “At least she doesn’t have her monkeys with her.”
Dorcas cocked her head at Pete’s reference. An old woman, unhappy with the turns of her life perhaps, but a witch?
“Oh, Elizabeth’s not so bad,” he said, waving his hand. “A long time ago she used to run this little zoo between here and Betty’s Pies until the DNR shut it down.”
“Oh, no, I’m just teasing you—she had wild animals like deer, porcupines, foxes.” He set the kick stand. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and went into the convenience store.
Pete returned empty handed. “You a member of triple A?” Dorcas shook her head. “Then, you’ll have to wait until NAPA opens in the morning.” He pointed his thumb back at the attendant inside. “She’s all out of Slim Jims.”
“I am so sorry,” Dorcas said. “You’ve done more than I would’ve expected from anyone and you missed dinner with your friends. They probably think you ran off the road.”
“Let ‘em dream.”
“It’s been a tough night for everyone,” Pete said. “The Wicked Witch said two people died up the highway and another got airlifted to St. Mary’s.”
“Oh, my God.” Dorcas put her hand over her mouth. If she’d left twenty minutes earlier, she might have been one of those people, flown by helicopter to Duluth or crushed between a semi’s bumper and the shell of a burnt out Jeep. “I don’t want to push my luck, but—”
“No more than you must,” he said. One corner of his mouth crept up.
Dorcas laughed. She decided to stop apologizing. “Let me make it up to you.
“The hotel can wait—I want to hear your hippie stories about South America— especially the wild ones. Can I buy you dinner and a drink?”
Pete turned off the highway opposite Dixie and over the hill through town as snowflakes began to whirl in the motorcycle’s headlamp again. Dorcas had never seen this part of Two Harbors. All the years that Frank drove her and the children to the cabin, they’d never veered off the highway that cut through town, and the stoplights at the intersections were nothing more than inconveniences that impeded their progress.
The motorcycle rumbled past dark Victorians and bungalows on narrow lots, Lutheran churches, a Carnegie library, and a stately silver-domed courthouse, its blond brick facade too brightly lit and grand compared to its modest surroundings. They approached the main street where a Dunnigan’s Pub & Grub sign lit up a corner window.
“Can we drive down by the lake first?” Dorcas asked when they paused at the cross street.
Without a word, Pete drove on past the bar and looped around a shadowy, majestic two-story railroad depot made of colossal blocks of red stone and two long, protective awnings. An old-fashioned steam engine and another monstrous train faced each other on the same parallel tracks beneath the awnings; two iron-cast forces frozen in time, avoiding an inevitable collision. Pete turned the motorcycle again and bumped over two sets of tracks before pulling into a parking lot fronting an expanse of darkness. Like a gigantic mechanical centipede, iron grid-work of an enormous ore dock rose up from the black water in front of them. The snow thickened, muting the expanse. A series of orange halos lit the platform and ore chutes above. To the far left in the distance the intermittent beacon of a lighthouse sparked the snow as it slashed a white beam across the bay.
Pete pulled the motorcycle to a stop, its front wheel touching the edge of a field of overgrown brush and weeds. The snow layered clumps of flakes upon the blades of tall grass, their seed heads drooping and bowing to the ground. The engine popped and growled, vibrating through Dorcas’ body. He turned the ignition off. She closed her eyes and lifted her chin. One by one, snowflakes lit on her nose and cheeks and evaporated from the heat of her skin. Her ears rang in the muffled silence for a long time before she opened her eyes.