When Preston Moore got the call that an extra shipment of gas was coming to accommodate holiday travel, a thickflaked snow had already been falling for hours. This snow came every winter, freezing on the roads in impenetrable layers of primordial ice and ending delivery from the gas trucks for the year. This was when the county men took over. They transported the gas from the highway at Ogema to Lincoln County’s one gas station, where they put it in underground. Preston was one of these men.
Another man was bringing the gas from Ogema and was to meet him at the station. We almost ran out last year, the man on the phone said. And we all got cars now.
Preston cranked the chains onto the tires of his truck and drove to the station. With the extra forty dollars, Preston thought he might buy his wife a nice bathrobe and maybe one for himself too if there was enough left over.
State Road 86 was slick under the wheels with the wet snow, but the chains were tight and the heater was warm and he knew the road. The wipers slapped loose snow from the windshield. Through the static on the radio, he heard nine feet could fall.
The station sign came into view out of the coarse, snowflecked sky. Block lettering taller than the station itself spelled out U-FUEL, with the L wrapping up and around and ending at a pump that poured red gasoline into the open U. The state flag hung frozen from a pole that reached as high at the bottom of the sign.
Preston turned into the lot and past a pale yellow hatchback that was parked near the sheetmetal shed where the tools were stored, a dusting of snow on it like fuzz on a peach. He pulled to the other side of the shed.
Through its open door Preston saw the shape of a man huddled on the bench inside. The shape raised a hand in greeting and Preston reached over and cranked down the passenger side window.
You got the gas, he said.
Where's the gas.
The man pulled down a scarf and leaned forward and a puff of frozen breath was released from his underbitten jaw. I dont have it, he said. I'm waiting to put it in.
The truck began to lurch in its idle state. Preston waited for the man to say something more and when he did not he rolled up the window and parked the truck. When he came around into the shed the man had pulled his scarf up again.
You said you're here to put it in.
Who told you to do that.
I dont know. A man from the county I guess.
When did he call you.
This morning. I was still asleep and my wife took the call. I came right after and I been here waiting.
You from Ogema.
The man worked the scarf loose until its folds fell around his neck. The skin that wrapped his cheekbones was cracked and dry and blushed a bottomless red under the bristles of his sparse black beard. Around his nose and mouth the beard was matted with streaks of mucus like those left by snails. It had been years since Preston had spent any time in Ogema but still he did not know this man.
Wind shook the shed and a gust of the fat flakes blew in and settled on a metal toolbox. It was locked with a padlock and contained the couplings they would need to connect that gas hose to the underground tank. The man reached over and rested his bare fingers on the lid.
I usually work with Stanley, Preston said.
You know him.
Probably. What's his name.
He brings the gas in his horse trailer.
I told you I'm not here to bring the gas, the man said. If I was I woulda brought it.
The man wrapped the scarf tight across his face and tucked the excess length into the hood of his coat. He settled himself to stillness on the bench and soon breath began to drag itself out from an opening in the wrap near his chin.
Mounted on the wall above the man was the hose. It was the same used in the pumps, but much longer and fortified with a layer of pliable, woven steel. A pointed copper alloy face was fitted to one end to prevent the gas from coming out too fast. The cloudy metal of it leered at Preston. He told the man he would be back and ducked out into the cold.
Windblown snow was strung across the station's twin pumps in peaked ridges and the numbers behind the glass that tallied the money owed were frosted to obscurity. Preston went around to the payphone at the back of the shed. He gripped a glove with his teeth and pulled it off and dialed zero. He asked the operator for the county maintenance office and while he waited he watched in the direction of Ogema, seeing only the winding grayscale blur of the developing blizzard.
A secretary picked up on the other line and told Preston everyone else had gone home early because of the snow.
Can you give me his home number.
I'm afraid I cant do that.
What. Why not.
We're not allowed to give out any personal information of government employees.
The wind banked hard around the receiver and into his ear. He pressed it in hard and covered the side of his face with his gloved hand.
Maybe you can help me, he said. Do you know if the gas left yet.
I'm sorry sir. Please try back again tomorrow.
Look, I'm the man who's putting in the gas and I'm telling you we got a mix-up over here.
No one is here, sir.
I need to know if the gas is coming or not. Can you tell me that.
I'm just about to leave myself.
There's another man here. I never seen him before.
Sir, she said. If you are out there then you need to get inside. Your friend too. Didnt you hear about what's coming. Could be ten feet.
Then you better get back inside. They'll be back tomorrow.
Try again then.
The line went dead and Preston hooked the receiver. The man’s hatchback was now only the shape of itself under an unbroken shell of snow. Preston wasnt sure if his own truck could make it back to town. He fitted his glove back on his hand and went into the shed.
Welcome back, the man said.
Everyone's taking shelter, Preston said. It looks like it's going to be a bad one.
Is the gas coming.
I dont know. If it left early enough.
But it's late.
It usually is. Preston hiked up the sleeve of his coat and checked his wristwatch. Its face was spotted with halfmelted snow.
The truck was no later than usual.
You saying we should leave.
I dont know. Maybe.
The man was very cold. He withdrew his arms into his coat leaving the sleeves to hang limp like the wings of a flightless bird. When he breathed it was deep into his scarf.
I need that forty dollars, the man said. You do what you want but I'm gonna need to collect that.
Preston wanted to leave this man who would not introduce himself and drive back to Tomahawk. He thought he could make it home if he drove slow enough on the straight road. But still the gas might come.
I'm gonna get me some heat, Preston said.
In my truck. You can come if you want.
You go on. I'm all settled in.
Alright then. Preston ducked out of the shed and felt himself swallowed by the storm. He made his way to the truck and cracked the door open and climbed in. The engine started and bucked and then calmed to a low hum in giving the heat. Preston removed his gloves into the passenger seat and brought his fingertips to the air vents. He could see the underside of the snowshell through the windshield. As the cab filled with heat the snow broke apart and floated lightly on the curve of the glass.
After ten minutes it was warm enough for Preston to remove his hat and scarf. He wiped condensation from the rearview mirror and checked himself. His skin was bruised from the wind and drops of melted snow hung from his face like pustules.He brushed these away and closed his eyes and felt the warm air leading him toward sleep.
He thought about the man in the shed. He imagined him small and formless inside his coat chanting truck is gonna come truck is gonna come truck is gonna come.
He was dreaming when a knock came near his head and a fist appeared crushing through the snow on the window. It pounded once more and then went away, leaving an opening through which Preston could see the snow whipping the frostbitten station sign outside. He redressed for the cold and turned off the engine, leaving the keys in the ignition. The door had frozen again. He forced it open with his shoulder and climbed down.
The man was at the end of a trail of his footprints waving into the blizzard. Preston started towards him and then the snow began to groan and a doublewheeled tractor surfaced out of the haze flashing electric orange light onto the station. Wisps hung off the deep grooves of the wheels as they crushed the snow beneath and the man waved the driver toward the panel near the pumps where they would put the gas in. A square piece of machinery followed the tractor on a pair of small wheels, rocking on the sifting ground. It was a hay baler, attached to the tractor with a thick steel pin.
The driver leaned out the window and looked back to see where the man was pointing. A blast of wind dislodged the cap from her head and a spring of auburn hair burst from her head and wove into the slashing air like frayed rope. The snow quickly took the color from her hair and she collected it under her hand and finished parking the tractor.
The engine exhaled weariness as it was turned off. The cab door swung open and the driver climbed down onto one of the wheels and then hopped to the ground. The man and the driver shook hands and Preston made his way over.
You made it, the man said.
Yeah. Wasnt easy in this.
You got the gas in there.
Three barrels of it.
Is that Stanley's tractor, Preston said.
The driver turned to him and the down in her overalls puffed and swelled as the wind blew at her back. Her hands were cupped against her ears against the cold. It is, she said.
You his daughter.
You from Ogema.
Not originally. But I live there.
Well who are you.
Who cares who she is, the man said. She brought the gas so let's put it in and get paid.
I'm Ellen, the driver said.
She walked between them and pulled a handle on the baler. The jaws of the door swung open and the drums of gas spilled out onto the snow. The man had no gloves and he put his hands in his pockets and righted a barrel with his boot. Ellen knelt and pried wheelcrushed snow from the panel and began unscrewing it.
What are you doing, she said to Preston.
Go and get the hose.
Preston trudged to the shed hearing them working behind him until the sound was erased in the storm. He took the hose from its hooks and reached under the bench and felt for the key to the toolbox that was taped there.
The torn edge of loose tape scraped against his coat sleeve. He got to his knees and tried to see under the bench but the shed’s single hanging bulb offered no light to penetrate the darkness there. He took off his gloves and felt around the ground until he could no longer stand the cold. The key was not there.
He coiled the hose and shouldered it and went out again. He moved against the fullness of the storm feeling its many hands pushing deep into his skin through his coat. The weight of the hose was like a carcass and he did not make it far before he let it fall. The curve of its body was quickly covered over and Preston grabbed it behind the pointed head and pulled it backwards through the snow. The man was not there when he returned.
Where is he.
He stepped off.
He had to piss I think. Give that here.
Preston offered her the hose and she pulled it through his hands down into the open panel.
Where are the couplings.
I couldnt get them.
The key's not there.
It's under the bench.
It wasnt there. I looked.
Maybe it fell. That tape is pretty old by now.
I checked for it.
The man came around the tractor buttoning his pants. The skin of his hands was shined a dark plum by the cold. It was shrunken around his knuckles, giving them the sharpness of fractured glass.
Ready, he said.
We dont have the couplings, Ellen said.
They're in the box. I thought you done this before.
I have. I know.
The key's not there.
It's taped under the bench.
The tape gave out.
Then it's on the floor.
I checked. It's not there.
Well where is it.
I dont know.
Well you didnt look too long did you.
Long enough to know it's gone.
I'll go get it.
I'm telling you it isnt there.
The man stood quiet. He scraped his damaged fingers through his beard and stared across the lot toward the shed. The storm blew currents between them.
Why dont we just put it in, he said.
How are we gonna do that.
You and me hold the hose tight on the barrel and she'll aim it in the tank.
That wont work.
We need those couplings. Unless you boys want to spill half the gas.
We'll get enough in to get the job done.
I didnt haul this all the way here to pour it out in the snow.
It wont be much.
What are you so worried about, Preston said.
I got to get paid.
We gonna get paid. Whether we do it now or tomorrow or the next day they gonna pay us.
What are you saying.
We're gonna freeze out here. The gas is here, that's pretty good considering. Let's put it in the shed and come back tomorrow.
I hear you, Ellen said. She pushed herself up and shook snow out of her hair. What had built up on her overalls slid off in sheets and the cleanness it revealed was a revolt against the storm.
Wait, the man said.
My ears are about to fall off, she said. We'll come back tomorrow.
I cant wait that long.
What does it matter.
I got to get paid.
You gonna get paid. You do the work and the county pays you.
Are you listening.
The man's beard opened up in front of Preston as he stepped close. It was full and void and it had retained no snow.
His jaw worked, spitting vulgarities saying he was going to break the lock on the box and finish the job today. His mouth rose out of the coarserimmed underbite and huffed an acrid steam pumped from the furnace at the bottom of his throat. When it was finished the blackness retreated with its body into the storm and was swept away whole.
I'm leaving, Ellen said. She climbed up the wheel and pulled open the cab door and got inside. The window was still down.
Do you know him, Preston said.
Not before today.
He wouldnt tell me his name.
Well you havent told me yours either.
Goodbye Preston, she said.
The engine started and the tractor passed dragging the hay baler on its own frozen and unturning wheels, allowing Preston to see the pattern of the man’s urine inscribed in the embankment at the base of the gas pumps. It had dug deep, and steam still rose from the valleys.
Reflective lights blinked as the tractor turned onto the road and the flashing dead orange illuminated the man as he came toward Preston. He was hunched against the storm but held his arms straight and rising, presenting to Preston in his upturned palms the pair of couplings.
She's going back, Preston said.
Then it's just us. Here, the man said and offered one of the couplings to Preston. Its threaded hole was already snowcapped and a dark cold gleamed from it.
How did you get the box open.
I broke it.
With my boot. Do you want me to get the goddamned thing and show you.
Then take this and let's put it in. Snow was accumulating in the man's palm so that the coupling was visible only as the shining base of the heap. The panel was full of snow and still the storm spun around them.
Come on man. We cant even see where to hook it in anymore.
I can feel for it.
Your hands are shot, Preston said and the man crushed the snow in his hand and brought the coupling down, smashing Preston’s cheek and scraping the skin raw with the icy edges of his nails.
Preston hit the snow facefirst and breathed it in and when he pushed himself away from the man and got up he felt it warming in his nostrils. He was behind the hose now and he grabbed it and held it against the man whose ruined hands were loose at his side gripping the couplings. The face under the hood was quiet, but his eyes burned.
Preston backed away from the man lancing the point of the hose in the air between them. A rage of broken pain was swelled against the coldness of the skin on his cheek and when he looked down his eye saw a rising red penumbra.
The end of the hose slithered at the man's feet and he stepped forward and trapped it under his boot. The head jumped from the cradle of Preston's arms and landed silently in the snow. Its body became a leyline between them, gathering quickly on its back the heavy powder of the storm.
Preston turned and ran the rest of the distance to his truck and cracked open the door and started the engine. The man started toward him then turned and went back to the panel. His fingers were paralyzed around the couplings. He knelt and shoveled with his hands, throwing back heaps of snow that burst in the wind.
Preston brushed off the truck's windshield and kicked out the space around the wheels and got in. When he pulled out of the station, the man was poised and steady over the hole. An unbroken column of breath plumed out of him and was claimed by the storm.
And he kept digging.