Your headlights open the night. A few flakes of snow are falling, coming directly at you, and it’s supposed to get worse. It’s nine p.m., near the end of your shift. You filled in for the morning driver, too, so you’ve been on the road nineteen hours. Another hour to go.
You shut off the radio. You’ve heard all the songs a hundred times and you’re not in the mood for conspiracy talk shows. The CD player in your car broke weeks ago, but there’s no money to fix it.
You’re exhausted, but restless and edgy from coffee, and your teeth feel gluey from all the beef sticks and chocolate you’ve eaten today. The last thing you want to hear is a burst of static from the two-way.
“Base to Dave,” says Harriet, the dispatcher in Denver.
You consider not answering it but in the end you do what you always do, pick it up and say, “This is Dave.”
She never believes you the first time. It makes you want to do damage. “Yes.”
“I’ve got one more stop for you before you hook up with Claudia. Hiebert Funeral Home needs you to swing back and pick up a specimen.”
“It’s not on the route.”
“Nope,” she says. “One-time deal.”
“What kind of specimen?”
“How big?” Your Subaru is already full.
“They said not big.”
“Where’s it going?”
“Yeah, okay.” You shut her off.
You work for Hospital Logistics, Inc., a company that picks up drugs, plus blood, urine, and other bodily fluids from tiny rural hospitals scattered across Montana, and transports them to the state pathology laboratory in Helena. You’ve been doing this four years, driving five hundred and nineteen miles a day, stopping at thirteen hospitals and nursing homes and bringing whatever they give you to Bozeman. There you meet up with Claudia, the Helena courier, who drives the stuff to the state lab.
Claudia is new. She’s young, a single mother, and like you lives in Bozeman. Young women don’t usually last long as couriers, and you and the other drivers are betting on which week she’ll quit. Your pick is this week, but you hope you lose. You like Claudia and you’d like to get to know her better.
You climb over Bozeman pass and enter town. Mercury vapor lights cast an orange glow over Main street, and snow slants through them. A few stores are open late, their windows throwing yellow squares of light onto the sidewalks.
For this time of night traffic is surprisingly heavy. You swerve and shift and bully your way through it, past the lighted skating rink where a pair of skaters are gliding over the ice. For a moment you wish you were out there with them, holding hands and carving figure 8s, leaving tracks in the ice behind you.
You pull up at the front door of the funeral home. It’s locked, but a bell beside it works. You lean on it.
About five minutes later an attendant shows up. He’s middle aged, paunchy, and he peers suspiciously through the glass at you. “Yes?” His voice is muffled.
“Hospital Logistics,” you shout. “Here to pick up a package.”
He thinks that over, then begins to unlock the door, a process that seems to go on for a long time. At last the door swings out and you step inside. It smells like this is the first time the door’s been opened in months.
“How are you,” he says, turning away.
It’s not a question so you don’t say anything.
He’s bald and his head nods continually. A bobble-head doll. “This way.”
He leads you through a reception area carpeted in powder blue, down a hall, and through another door that opens onto bare concrete steps.
“Do you have a container?” He clumps down the steps without looking back.
“No. What kind of container?”
“Anything. A cooler, whatever.”
“No,” you say. “Sorry.” You follow him down the steps to the basement and through another door into what you suspect is the embalming room. In front of you is a white enamel table on a pedestal. To the right is a stainless steel table with a sink in the center, and at the back wall is a deep counter with a row of drawers under it and things on it that look like microwaves or toaster ovens, but probably aren’t.
He glances around at you, looks put out. “Just a moment. I’ll see what I can find.” And he goes back out the door.
You wish he wouldn’t leave you alone in here.
Finally he comes back with a cardboard Cabela’s box.
He sets it on the stainless steel table, folds the flaps down so they stay open. Then he pulls a pair of green latex gloves from an open carton on the counter and stretches them on. He snaps the wrists of each one and walks to a drawer in the wall counter and pulls out a stainless steel slab.
There’s a naked infant on it. He picks up the infant, carries it to the box. It’s a girl, a few months old, and she is curled in the fetal position. She has wispy brown hair matted on her head and her eyelids are half open, the eyes milky and opaque.
He deposits her in the box, not gently, then folds the flaps together and steps back. “There you are.”
“Are you serious?”
“Are you the courier or not?” He nods as if he expects nothing but agreement, whatever question he may ask.
“Yes, but I’ve never carried anything like this.”
“It’s a specimen, that’s all. An autopsy has been ordered so we can’t prepare it for burial. It’s to be taken to the state lab for a post mortem.”
“I asked you if you had a container.”
“We don’t normally carry dead babies.” You consider calling Harriet, but what could she do? “Okay,” you say, and pick up the box, wondering where in the Subaru to put it.
You carry the box at arm’s length upstairs. It’s not heavy. You back through the door and carry the box to the car.
To open the rear hatch you have to set the box down on the wet asphalt. You lean inside to see if there’s room. There isn’t. Drug totes, big sealed plastic containers used to ship meds to nursing homes, are stacked to the roof. The back seat is also crammed full. The only place the box will fit is in the front passenger seat beside you.
Reluctantly you pick up the box and place it carefully on the seat on your clipboard, next to the remains of your lunch. With a black marker you scrawl State Lab on the top flaps.
Driving again you wonder if you should look for another job. The two-way crackles and Harriet’s voice says, “Did you pick up the package, Dave?”
“Nine twenty-three,” you say, and shut her off.
You try not to think about the baby in the box, but you keep glancing at it, wondering if it’s starting to smell.
Fifteen minutes later you pull into a Quik Way gas station. Claudia’s old Honda isn’t here yet, so you drive to the outer edge of the pump apron and park.
The station is bathed in white light but the pumps are deserted. Near the entrance an attendant is squatting with his back against the building, having a smoke. Snow is falling heavier now. It melts on the car hood and beads of water run across the surface and disappear.
Normally you would doze until Claudia gets here but the box makes you uneasy. You get out and stand beside the car.
Your cell phone chirps.
Claudia says, “Hey, Dave.” She sounds tired.
“Hey,” you say, relieved. “How was your vacation?”
“I’m running behind,” she says. “I should be there in twenty.”
“Babysitter was late. You at the Quik Way?”
You tell her yes and she clicks off.
You wait fifteen minutes, then get back in the car so she won’t wonder why you’re standing outside. The wipers push snow off the windshield and frost crawls up the side windows.
You imagine you hear a baby’s faint cry, so you get out again. You pass the time thinking about Claudia. You decide you have to tell her what’s in the box.
At last her old black Honda turns into the station. She parks beside you and gets out.
“Hi,” you say.
She gives you a tense, too-bright smile. “Hey.” She’s not dressed warmly enough for this weather, just a jean jacket and no hat or gloves. Her round face is ashen, as if a frost has bitten deep into it, and there are dark smudges under her eyes.
“Yeah, fine.” Her voice is bitter.
“Your ex giving you trouble? Want me to hire a hit man?”
She snorts. “Him? I just call him whenever I’ve had a few drinks. Tell him what a bastard he is.”
“Hey, did Panati give you our paychecks?”
Her shoulders rise and fall as she takes a long, deep breath. “Friday.”
You make a talking mouth motion with your hand. “Right.”
“How much do you have for me?” she says.
You glance at the box. “Loaded. Got enough room?”
She peers into her own car. “Maybe.”
You open the back hatch of the Subaru and pull out the drug totes she’ll need. Her route’s a little shorter than yours but the roads are worse, a lot of remote two-lanes that don’t get plowed as quickly as the interstate. On a good night she’ll get home about six in the morning, just in time to feed her kids. This won’t be a good night.
Her stomach rumbles so loudly you can hear it. “Have you eaten today?” you say.
For a moment she looks confused. “I’m fine.”
“Must be applause I hear.” But she doesn’t smile again.
You exchange your full totes for her empties, then hand her the cooler with the blood samples. She accepts them all and barely looks at anything. Her mind is far away. Snow is turning her short brown hair white.
Finally the only thing left is the cardboard box. You pull it out. While you’re wondering how to explain what’s in it, she takes it from you, looking over her shoulder for a place to stow it.
She finds a place for the box on the back seat and wedges it in.
Your fingers are cold and you curl your hands under your arms, waiting for her to turn around so you can tell her.
But when she straightens and turns, her shoulders slacken. She slumps against the car and bursts into tears. “Shit.”
“Uhm, what’s up?”
“Callie Anne’s been sick, Dave. My little girl.”
“She came down with some sort of fever so I took a couple of days off to watch her. But she got worse so I drove her to the emergency room. I guess I should have taken her sooner but, Christ, I don’t have any insurance. It was three hours before they could look at her. She died yesterday.”
You don’t know what to do with that. Her shoulders are shaking. You take a step forward to give her a hug, then stop because you don’t know her well enough. “I’m sorry,” you say again.
You add what you can think of. “What was the matter?”
“They don’t know. There’s going to be an autopsy, I guess.”
Your heart is slowing, as if your blood has thickened. “Where is she now?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “Hiebert’s.” She turns back, wipes her face one more time. Gives you a wan smile. “Sorry. It’s not your problem.”
No, you think. It isn’t. You’re relieved she recognizes that. You mumble some reassurances and make for your car.
“By the way,” she says, “What’s in the box?”
But you’re in your car and slamming the door and don’t answer.
As you drive away you exhale in relief. But you make the mistake of glancing in the rearview, see her drag her sleeve across her face as she shoves at the totes.
You feel nothing but tired. Your head is so heavy you want to take it off and set it down somewhere. You try to organize your thoughts but the threads that connect them are broken.
You turn around, drive back, and get out. “You shouldn’t be here,” you say. “Go home.”
She looks over her shoulder, surprised to see you. “I can’t. They won’t give me any more time off.”
“I’ll take your route tonight.”
“Thanks, but I need the money.”
“You can have the money. I’ll just run the route.”
“You already drove two shifts, Harriet said.”
“You know what?” you say, “Let’s quit. Right now.”
“Uh huh. And live how?”
“We’ll run away together. Live on a beach in Acapulco.”
She manages a sad smile. “And maybe the Pope will do a commercial for condoms. Thanks, anyway, Dave. I gotta go.”
She walks to the driver’s side of her car. You have the urge to run after her, wrap your arms around her to keep her from slipping away.
As she gets in, you open your mouth to tell her about the box, but you can’t find the words. “You’ll be in some weather.”
“I know.” She slams the door. Gives you a small wave as she drives off.
Inside the Quik Way the lights wink out one at a time as the attendant gets ready to close. You could still go inside and get warm for a moment, but why bother?
You put the car in gear and drive into the dark.
(appeared in The Saint Ann’s Review, (Fall, 2010)