Garrison Junction

imageI’m still obsessed with this Maile Meloy story, “Garrison Junction,” so obsessed that I read it aloud to Truman on the roadtrip and ordered a copy of Half in Love for my friend Jordan. But I can’t get this story to every stranger who googles me, so I decided to type it up. Copyright Maile Meloy. After the jump, the story, and after the story, my take on why it’s so great. 

It had been snowing hard for twenty-four hours and the snow stayed were it fell. A few cars crawled the streets, white lights emerging from the whiteness, red taillights invisible until they were just ahead. The whole valley was socked in, the mountains invisible in the steady snow. Gina left the car running in the driveway with the heat on,, and white flakes stung her eyes and melted on her cheeks. It would be worse up on the pass, where the now came harder.

The phone was ringing inside the house, and the woman on the line asked for Chase. She said her name was Kathleen Sheehan and she was calling about a check; she said Chase would understand. Gina took down the Missoula number, put it in her pocket and went to the bathroom. Her bladder seemed to have shrunk to the size of a walnut. When she stood she felt shaky on her feet

Chase came in, stomping his boots clean at the door. “How’s your car running?” he asked. He had put off getting studded tires on his truck all fall, and no garage in town had time for him now. Gina had put hers on when the roads were still dry

“I think we should wait out the storm,” she said

“Can’t wait.” He gathered a stack of maila folders and yellow pads for his deposition, his bare hands red from the cold. Gina wondered, watching him, if Kathleen Sheehan was a client—but then she wouldn’t be asking about a check, she’d be explaining why she hadn’t sent one

Chase slid back the driver’s seat of Gina’s car as he climbed in, and lowered the seatback until he could out the windshield. Gina buckled her seat belt over her queasy stomach. There were no cars on the valley road, and no cars coming from the mountains, only the snow blowing against the glass and the half-buried tracks ahead. A temporary orange sign posted where the road began to climb said: EMERGENCY VEHICLES ONLY.

“Chase,” she said.

“This is an emergency,” Chase said.

Gina supposed it was an emergency for her, too. She was going to visit her mother while Chase had his deposition, to try to explain. She hadn’t slept since she told her mother that was pregnant, and the long nights were worse than the sick mornings, the dark patches flowering like bruises under her eyes. Her mother had said, “So you’re going to be a whore like the rest of us.” Her mother wasn’t well, she knew that, but still she had sat up that night and thought about those women, her mother and grandmother, hoer lonely aunts, their absent men. Going to college and teaching school had seemed to put her in a separate category from them. No one was marrying when she met Chase—marrying mattered only to her mother, and life with him was good. No reason to change it, no need to.

Now it was ten years later, and the most militant of her college friends had tied various kinds of knots in courtrooms and churches and meadows. A wrongful-termination case in Missoula had brought on two bad years, when Chase gone all the time, staying nights in a motel instead of driving home. Gina wasn’t sure they had made it out of those years intact. She had seen the baby as a happy accident after Chase won his case, drunk on wine and praise, but Chase just saw it as an accident. And now there was Kathleen Sheehan on the phone.

The more immediate fear, as they drove up the winding road to the top of the pass, was that Chase would miss one of the invisible turns and they would over the invisible edge and plummet to the valley below. The thick curtain of snow parted only a few feet in front of them, and Chase drove slowly, for him, into that curtain, following the disappearing tracks around each curve.

“This is crazy,” Gina said.

“I could drive this road blind,” Chase said.

There was still no visibility at the top of the pass, only feeling of going down instead of up. Down was worse; the snow on the road had started to freeze into ice, and their wheels slid until the studded snow tires caught and held, slid and caught again. When the police roadblock stopped them in Garrison Junction in the valley below, Gina’s hand was cramped from gripping the door handle, and they hadn’t spoken for miles.

“How’d you get through?” the highway patrolman asked when Chase rolled down his frosted window. “That’s emergency vehicles only.”

“This is an emergency,” Chase said. It was less convincing when he said it to the cop.

“Well, you can’t go through,” the officer said. There were white spots on his red cheeks, the beginnings of frostbite. “Road’s closed both ways now. There’s an accident ahead—a semi stretched out across the highway. No one’s getting through today. You can wait in the café until the storm quits and we can get you back home.”

They parked at the low-roofed white building with the sign for motel cabins, next to the single-pump gas station. Gina thought about the phone message, about mentioning it while they were still alone, but instead she got out into the storm.

The café was steamy inside with bodies, the linoleum slick with melted snow. Although the rom was packed, it wasn’t loud. Everyone seemed trapped and tired of it, no giddiness of adventure in the hum of their voices. Gina shook off her boots on the wet rubber mat and dodged the tables to the bathroom, where the roll of toilet paper had fallen into the melted snow on the floor.

When she came out again, a man stepped from the men’s door opposite: tall with a dark mustache, in a heavy denim jacket with a dirty sheepskin collar. He looked her in the eye and hesitated, as if he wanted to say something, and then he moved on.

Chase had found two seats at a table by the window, next to an old man and an old woman with hard-worn faces, and Gina sat down.

“Jesus, I never seen anything like that,” the old man was saying. He rubbed his chapped hands over eyes gadrooned with wrinkles. His hair was bushy and white, and he had truck-stop gimme cap on the table.

“We were going west right behind the semi,” his wife said, voice low. “A car stopped on the road ahead because couldn’t see, and the semi pule right into them. Killed the man and the woman in the car. We ended up in the ditch to miss the wreck.” The woman dropped her voice further. “The driver of the semi’s here,” she said. She cast he eyes to the center of the crowded room.

Gina knew who it would be, and waited until Chase had looked, then turned to see the tall man with the dirty sheepskin who had given her the hard look by the bathrooms. He sat alone at a small table, drinking coffee. He caught her eye and she nodded at him, feeling awkward, and looked away.

“Just killed two people,” the old man said under his breath. “Poor sucker. I don’t know how he stands it in here.”

Gina thought of the couple in the car, so afraid of what was in front of them that they had forgotten what would be behind. She wondered if they’d been about the road, if they’d argued about what to do, of if they’d agreed to stop. She thought of the view of from the truck, the car materializing in the field of white.

“That must be what truckers fear, hitting someone,” she said.

The old man widened his eyes. “You ever talk to those guys,?” he asked. “We used to run a truck stop in Choteau. Those guys aren’t scareda anything.”

“Oh, All, that’s not true,” his wife said.

“It is.”

Chase gazed across the room. “You think they’ll get the that truck off the road today?”

“Not likely,” the old man said. “Not in this storm.”

Chase seemed to be thinking. His eyes, downturned at the corners, always seemed be thinking—not plotting, just considering. She thought it was why juries liked him. Her mother had liked him, too, at first, and liking him might have carried the day with her, except she didn’t trust any man at all. Gina’s  father had pushed her down the stairs when she was twenty, and everyone said the fall had left her a little off. Gina touched the piece of paper through her jeans, felt it crinkle. Finally Chase sighed, and pushed himself to his feet.

“I better go call the judge, then,” he said. “Say I’m not coming.”

Gina watched him go, past the table where the truck driver sat alone, to the line for the pay phone on the wall. She thought about calling her mother, but her mother wouldn’t be expecting her yet. If she called now she would worry.

“You feeling okay, honey?” Al’s wife asked her. “You look pale.”

Al’s wife had the dried-up look of long winters in smoky truck stops, and Gina thought she must look pretty rough to alarm her. But there was concern in the woman’s voice, and Gina was grateful for it.

“I guess I don’t feel so good,” Gina said.

“What’re going on your guy’s trip for if you don’t feel good?”

Gina held her hands in her lap and knew by the word “guy” that their ringlessness had been noted. “I was going to visit my mother,” she said.

Chase always said Gina was not her mother, but sometimes Gina had to be in the same room with her to make sure they were not the same person and she would not end up damaged, jobless and alone. Gina had started scanning the classifieds for waitressing jobs again—a compulsion, after ten years of teaching, but just to be sure. 

“I’m Alice,” the woman said. “We were going to see our daughter. Maybe our daughter can get together with your mother.” She laughed. “I think your mother’d be disappointed if she got our daughter instead of you.

“I don’t know about that,” Gina said.

“You don’t know our daughter.”

“Now,” the woman’s husband said.

Chase came back to the table. “Can’t get through,” he said. “That line all people trying the phone and finding out they can’t get through. But they don’t tell each other it doesn’t work. Of if they do, everyone still wants to try it.” He shook his head and sat down.

Gina stood. “I’m going for a hot chocolate,” she said. “What can I get you?”

They all asked for coffee and Gina stepped over two children in snowsuits playing on the slushy floor. The waitress at the counter seemed too nice and too old to be a waitress, and Gina talked to her about the snow. When the coffees were ready, Gina felt the truck driver looking at her, and she carried the tray to the table, avoiding his eyes. She thought again of the couple in the car, braking in the road, unable to keep moving forward in the blinding snow. She wondered how soon they had noticed it coming, if they had seen the lights first of heard the shrieking brakes, and who noticed it first, and what they said.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” Alice asked, nodding at the cup of chocolate. “You seem like a coffee drinker. And you’ve got the morning-sickness eyes.”

“It’s that bad, huh?” Gina said.

“Our Shelley’s pregnant,” Alice said, and she looked at Al as if daring him to say something. “She looks like she got punched in both eyes, too.”

“Congratulations,” chase said.

“You too,” Al said. He clapped Chase on the shoulder. “I hope it’s a fine kid you get.”

Chase looked down at his hands. “I hope so, too.”

Al and Alice would see his demeanor as modest and please, but Gina guessed Chase was thinking of the burden the baby would be to him, the train on his time and sleep and money.

Al said, “I gotta move my knee a little.” He shoved his chair back with a linoleum squeal, straightened with his hands on his thighs and lumbered away from the table.

“Don’t mind him,” Alice said.

“Nothing to mind,” Chase said easily.

“Now,” Alice said. “Why don’t you marry this girl?”

Chase raised his eyebrows at Gina.

“I didn’t—” Gina began, and she looked at the woman. “What do you mean?”

“No reason why not to,” Alice said. “Or is there?”

Chase smiled at Alice, looked out the window and yawned a little self-conscious yawn. “Well, maybe I will,” he said. “No reason why not to.”

Gina pressed the paper message against her thigh again, a motion that had already become a habit, the feeling of wanting to touch it detached in her mind from what it might mean. Chase would have an explanation for Kathleen Sheehan, for the call. He always did. He would say that Gina had to start trusting him someday. But his embarrassed yam made her angry; the old woman had caught him off-guard, and that was hard to. Gina heard herself speak.

“Someone called this morning, I forgot to tell you,” she said. “A woman.”

Chase looked at her, and she could feel him grow alert. “What woman?”

She took the piece of paper from her pocket and read out what she knew by heart. Chase kept the guarded look on his face for a second longer and then laughed. There was relief in his laugh, but Gina didn’t know if he was relieved the woman was not who he’d thought, or relieved that once again he had a good answer.

“Katy Sheehan,” he said. “Sure. She took some pictures for me, up in the Bitterroot, for a water-rights case. I sent her a check for them.” He smiled as if he’d won.

Gina waited.

Alice said, “Why’s she asking abut the check, then?”

“I don’t know,” Chase said, serious now. “Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever got those pictures.”

The old man came back and sat down heavily, ignoring the silence at the table. “Phone’s still out,” he said.

The windows were fogged and the room was close and warm. Gina believed Chase about the check, but believing him didn’t help. It just meat it was true she would have to start trusting him someday. “I’m going to walk around,” she said. Her legs were less shaky now, and she stood, leaving the hot chocolate on the table. Alice had guessed right: she missed coffee. 

One of the children in snowsuits had fallen asleep under his parents’ table; the other played tic-tac-toe with her father in the gray borders of his newspaper. A teenaged girl slept against the wall beneath a print of a bugling elk, and her boyfriend slept with his head on the table, holding her hand. People without tables sat in mismatched chairs pulled form the motel cabins. The line for the phone was gone; everyone had accepted the downed lines and given up. The road back over the pass would open soon, and they could go home, and Gina would call then. She would not have seen her mother but she would have tried. And they be safe at home, alive and whole.

Gina walked the perimeter of the room once, and when she looked up the driver was watching her. He swung the dregs in his coffee cup in small circles, then put down the cup and stood to go. The people around him looked up. At Gina’s shoulder he brushed against her and paused, again as if to say something, then pushed open the fogged glass door and walked out into the snow. She felt the cold air on her throat. The bell tied to the hydraulic arm jingled as the door swung shut, and the room was close and warm again. The people who had watched the driver stand returned to their low conversations or their naps.

Gina went to the door and rubbed a clear spot in the pane. The driver had no truck, and there was nothing but the one-pump gas station out there. The blue denim jacket headed neither toward the gas station nor toward the police roadblock, but straight for the empty road. A cigarette burned in his hand. He would be invisible in the snow in a minute. She put her hood and stepped outside, the air cold and bright in her lungs, the snow blowing against her face, and she could smell the smoke he left behind. On the other wise of the highway were mountains, invisible now but leading, she knew, straight up into the white sky. She watched the dark jacket disappear into white, and then the legs that carried it, until the figure had vanished in the storm.

She shoved her hands in her pockets to keep them warm. She could find the frostbitten policeman and tell him the driver had wandered off. She could follow and see if she could find the man, though it was cold, and he was far away, and what would she say to him? She could tell Chase he was gone; Chase would have an idea about what to do. Or she could just let the driver go, and walk where he wanted. He might be accountable in some way, but no one could say the accident was his fault. Her face was wet and tingling with snow, and the smell of his smoke was gone. She wanted, with an unexpected force, for him to come back. But she imagined feeling what she’d seen in his eye, and what it might be like to walk away, and she went back inside, and let him go. 

First, Maile Meloy is not a show-off. But let’s give a quick shout-out to the line “the dark patches flowering like bruises under her eyes,” and the sentence “Now it was ten years later, and the most militant of her college friends had tied various kinds of knots in courtrooms and churches and meadows.” A writer of Meloy’s caliber wouldn’t just use an expression like “tying the knot.” Instead, she rearranges it, and places it next to “militant” to bring out a bondage undertone to marriage. 

Let’s talk about Chase for a minute. Is he cheating on Gina? Has he ever cheated on Gina? Here’s a word Meloy never uses when discussing Gina’s trust issues: Again. There’s no evidence that Chase did something to mess up Gina’s trust. Rather, Gina doesn’t trust men generally, considering the situations they have put her mother, her Aunts, and ultimately her in. That said, Chase is a little bit irresponsible—no studded tires in Montana?—and maybe too charming for his own good. Still, he might not be a total louse.

And also, all the pairs in this story! Chase and Gina, Al and Alice, the “two children in snowsuits playing on the slushy floor,” Gina’s mom and Al and Alice’s daughter waiting on the other side of the highway, and “the couple in the car, so afraid of what was in front of them that they had forgotten what would be behind them.”

How about the perspective? It’s from Gina’s point of view, but why isn’t she the narrator? Gina feels powerless throughout the story, and for her to narrate her story would imply some sort of authorial control. This isn’t a character who can tell her own story. Her big moment of agency is letting the truck driver walk away. 

What happens in this story? A couple gets caught in the snow. Nothing really seems to change except their plans. Yet Meloy so deftly captures a moment of uncertainty: Gina’s life is about to change, and she’s not sure what to do about that. And yet, something small has shifted. Even if Gina is not ready to believe in herself as a teacher, trust Chase, and become a mother, she’s beginning to see that her only choice is forward. 

So anyway, buy Half in Love. And also buy Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It