Hank and Essie stood on tiptoes trying to find space in the pews at St. Mary’s Parish where they could sit together for the final passion play. The performance Sunday night brought an end to a 30-year tradition as students from St. Mary’s School reenacted the Lenten trial, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ.
The ushers led Essie to a seat up front and she squeezed into the sliver of space at the edge of the pew. Hank stood in back as he was going to have to leave a little early.
After the performance parents, grandparents, friends and family slowly made their way into the chilly evening air. It was the first day of Spring but it sure didn’t feel like it. There were some signs Mother Nature was slipping toward summer as tulips and crocus pushed through the soil – their progress hindered by a light blanket of late winter’s frost.
Essie stood on the corner, her head bowed as she breathed into the collar of her coat trying to stay warm. She held close the Maricio’s pizza box and tried to soak in the heat radiating from the bottom. Hank was to be along shortly.
He dashed from the play to pick up Jeff’s truck for a late night delivery of lumber for The Sign Shop – they had received quite a bit of repair business following high winds that whipped through community earlier in the week.
Hank suggested an impromptu pizza picnic and asked Essie to ride along. Finally they’d be able to spend some time together, away from prying eyes.
Essie heard the loud rumble of the truck and Hank fighting to shift gear, long before she saw him slowly roll down Barton hill. The brakes whined as he pulled to a stop. “Pardon me – do you need a lift,” said Hank as he raced around the front of the truck to heft open the door and help Essie climb inside.
The pair did an impromptu pizza dance as Essie passed the pie, pulled herself up into the cab, got settled then rested the box on her lap. It felt like a little burrito blanket of warmth as the seats in the truck had already soaked in some heat.
“Hope you have a little bit of time,” said Hank as he checked the mirror, released the brake and slowly turned the steering wheel hand over hand onto Barton Avenue. “Jeff left a note that I had to drop off another load of lumber so this may take a little longer.”
The aroma of hot pizza quickly filled the small space in the cab. Hank pushed up the bill of his hat – beads of sweat on his forehead. “That sure smells good,” he said. “How about we cut through Young America, drop the first load and then find a spot to eat.”
Essie was in total agreement. She reached across to the dashboard and turned up the radio as Glenn Miller let go an upbeat “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Hank wound the wheel to the right. He made little conversation as he focused on the road ahead, conscious of the weight of the truck.
Essie didn’t mind. She was just happy to be spending time together.
The truck picked up steam as the pair rolled down River Drive N., under the railroad track, past the old cheese factory and up the hill.
Hank came to a sudden stop that jarred Essie forward. “Sorry about that,” said Hank. He had a bit of 5 o’clock stubble on his face and was biting his lip in frustration. “Jeff told me this would be a bit tricky to downshift – but I feel like I’m wrassling a bear.”
Hank had driven truck before. He stomped on the clutch and buried it in the floor boards. “Dang,” said Hank struggling with the 3 on a tree. “I’m more used to the shifter on the floor than on the steering column.”
With a bit of a lurch Hank slowly crept the truck to the threshold of the wooden bridge. He gave a quick honk and flashed his lights. They waited.
Cresting the old wooden bridge was a teenage rite of passage in Barton. The old folks handed down warnings from generation to generation. If you ever did meet someone head on there was no sucking in your gut and passing along side – someone would have to reverse course and give way.
Hank leaned on the horn again and flipped the lights. He put the truck in gear and they jumped ahead and moved, ever slowly over the bridge.
Neither Hank nor Essie said a word, except in silent prayer – which is something no one ever admitted – at least not in an out loud voice.
The bridge groaned under the weight of the truck. A solid bead of sweat dropped quick down Hank’s sideburn as Essie held one hand on the door and the other on the pizza box. She braced her feet firmly on the floor for stability.
The pair crested the bridge and the truck snorted ahead. Hank shifted and they clamored down the opposite side. Both gave a heavy sigh of relief when they heard the back tire clear the final plank.
“That wasn’t too bad now was it,” said Hank as he gave a quick glance in the rear-view mirror to check the load.
Essie released her sweaty grip on the door handle, smiled nervously and briefly tugged at her dress before losing her balance as she was thrown forward into the dashboard.
Hank had jerked the wheel as his eyes caught something run across his path. The weight of the truck made it hard to steer and they veered off the side of the road into the tall grass.
The pair were out of breath as Hank hit the breaks. He reached for Essie – her face looked like it was covered in blood.
“Essie, are you OK,” yelled Hank. “Essie….”
With cat-like reflexes Essie managed to brace herself in the vehicle but she lost control of the pizza which ended up making her side of the cab look like a crime scene. “I’m OK. I’m OK,” she repeated.
A couple people came running down the road from The Columbian. “You kids alright,” one man yelled as he pulled open the driver’s side door.
Hank and Essie stumbled out. “We’ll get Bob’s Main Street Auto & Towing to come pull you out,” said a man holding onto Essie and leading her to the road.
“Young lady, we’ll have to get you to the hospital.”
Essie declined. “No, no. It’s not blood it’s pizza sauce. I was holding a pizza,” she stammered.
Essie, however, was bleeding from the mouth. She must have hit her teeth on impact. “We’ll run you on over to The Riverfront Dentist and have him take a look,” said the man.
Before Hank knew it Essie was whisked into a vehicle, all he saw was the red tail lights as they faded into the distance.
“Doesn’t look like you’ve got too much damage here boy,” said a man in dirty bib overalls.
Bob’s Auto arrived quickly and so did the cops. Hank was tagged with a ticket for inattentive driving. He figured he’d have to give attorney John Best a call in the morning.
In no time Hank was thanking the tow truck driver, shaking hands and again struggling with the gear shift.
He knew he’d have to tell Jeff what happened but that would be after he finished the deliveries, cleaned the cab and checked on Essie. Hank figured it all could have been much worse but he was really worried about Essie.
Driving home he swung past the dentist’s office; it was dark – obviously. It was late. Hank turned down Essie’s street. Too late to stop and knock on the door, Hank saw a light in the upstairs bedroom.
He idled in the street a while, hoping …..
He’d have to check tomorrow…
Humpback Bridge photo courtesy Kurt Hoefert.
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