When the Federal Highway Department turned the goat track that ran through town into a road, Sharra and I went to work as flaggers. At lunchtime, we’d sit in her old blue and white Ford F250 and make plans. Now she owns the flagging company and I hate my job. It’s not her fault. Sharra won’t let me quit because she hates her job too and I’m the only person who understands.
In the beginning, I loved my job. It paid twenty bucks an hour, and I hated making dinner. For fifteen years I’d failed to get dinner ready by 5:30. This was partially because every afternoon I’d rewrite the first three chapters of my Science Fiction novel. My husband was impressed that I made twenty bucks an hour, so he finally quit with the dinner-on-time idea. That was his second mistake. Or third maybe.
My first job was to stop traffic for four hours while Cooper pushed big chunks off the mountain with the D10L Cat. Then the crew cleaned up the mess to afford safe passage and we let traffic go through the job for half an hour. Most of the time. Mind you, safe passage is relative to the size and height of a car. Most of the time.
The worst wreck happened one afternoon about five minutes before the four o’clock road opening. A boulder the size of Dorothy’s house fell on one of the 988s and broke the articulating joint in the middle. The loader was squashed into two real flat pieces with the oiler inside. After Boom and Bang dynamited the rock it took two and a half 5-ton Cat wagons to haul it off.
That was the first time Lifeflight came out. The oiler lived but his legs got smashed. He wasn’t killed because he’d been asleep under the seat when the rock fell. His legs were the only thing sticking out. It affected his head too, although the Boss told me he was like that before he got squished. Rocky Mountain Construction had to put him back to work when he got out of the hospital, though he wasn’t much good at anything after the accident. He wasn’t much good at anything before the accident, but he did have a good-looking wife and lots of kids so maybe he was good at something.
Took a long time to cut the oiler out of the loader, and the helicopter pilot came over to watch. Said he liked that kind of thing. Said he’d been a medivac pilot in Desert Storm. Said he flew Fire Incident work before he got on with LifeFlight. Said he’d been lucky. While he flew a chopper in the desert, I was busy being a stay-at-home mom writing science fiction at night. Now I’m a flagger and he flies a chopper in the mountains. Luck has nothing to do with it.
Sharra bought the flagging business from the boss, Buzz, when Buzz’s wife left him. Buzz’s thing is Cat trucks and heavy equipment but he subcontracted the flagging to give his wife, Kimi, something to do. It kept her pretty busy. Kimi flagged occasionally—to keep up her tan—on days when Rocky Mountain was blasting and we needed a flagger to keep the kayakers out of the river for a few hours. And she came out to check on us every other day or so, to make sure we were wearing our sunscreen and weren’t sleeping on the job since the incident with the oiler got everyone spooked about that.
Kimi wore short shorts on to-die-for legs and had fake boobs that looked pretty good in a tank top. When her shift ended, she drove home the long way through the job and she got a flat tire on her Bronco a couple times a month. When this happened, she’d stop and get out to look at the tire. She’d slide those long, tan legs out first. After the whole project came to a standstill, she’d open the Bronco’s back hatch and lean it to find the spare. Do you know how many blonds it takes to change a tire? None. It takes three guys and a loader. The guys used the loader to jack up her car and change the tire. That never took less than an hour. I think Buzz got divorced so the job could get done. Sharra got a real good deal on the barrels and radios and flagging stuff when he sold out.
After Kimi left him, Buzz got pretty crabby. But the guys said he was nicer on the days I worked. He started calling me “Indy, hon” instead of “hey you.” I called him “Buzzie, sweetie” which made him smile. Each day we waited to see how long it took to make Buzz’s mustache twitch at the corners. My husband never smiled until we got the divorce. Buzz was easier.
I finished a 20,000-word short story the year I worked as night flagger. It was a fantasy story written on legal tablets while the road was closed. Down the margins were penciled interesting things people told me while they were waiting: names and addresses; scribbled maps of places to visit; the locations of good fishing lakes in the Sawtooths; titles of books and songs. My husband said my story was stupid. He was mad because I wasn’t home to fix dinner. The story won a Dell Award.
Took five years to finish the road. Subsequent jobs got bigger and further from home, rules got tougher, Sharra’s business was licensed as a woman-owned business certified for public works, and we put on hardhats and learned to be real flaggers. We didn’t get to chat with the people waiting anymore, but held our STOP signs up like shields and hoped people wouldn’t run us over. Yeah, people get burned out about roadwork and forget their manners. Flaggers—well me anyway—get burned out on people. People should get to know me before they get pissed off—even my husband did that. I should’ve been a pilot.
After my divorce, I went back to college to learn how to write so I could quit flagging and make good money. Sharra still won’t let me quit. I fell off a ladder putting orange plastic flags on a freeway sign and they put a steel plate in my hip. Now I might stand a chance if I get into a fender bender with a car. Sharra uses me on jobs where I don’t have to hold a paddle very long or lift anything heavy. College students are always broke, so I never say “no” when she calls. I keep telling myself it won’t be much longer—just ‘til I sell my first book.
Last summer I worked a job on the Idaho-Montana border. Rocky Mountain was the general contractor so it was all the old “gang.” Buzz was the project “soop.” He was recovering from another divorce. He said he was fortunate Annie had come with her own boobs because he couldn’t afford to pay for another pair. But Annie got the sturgeon fishing boat, which meant we had to work weekends.
In the heavy construction field, Lost Trails was considered an “A” list job. When I stood on the road and pictured all the places I wanted to be, Lost Trails wasn‘t one of them. It got harder to refrain from telling people I stopped where I really thought they should go. Yeah, I was just directing traffic, not making social commentary. To pass time I’d add up my earnings each hour until ten o’clock; at ten it passed $100 and my attitude improved.
Trouble arrived on Tuesday the twelfth in a Toyota Land Cruiser. I should have expected an attitude when I read “MYT4X4” on his Montana plates. Morning traffic was light and the Toyota was my only vehicle since the last pilot-car go-round. Traffic was about to head my way from the other end. Buzz came on the radio, talking to the other flagger.
“Hold your traffic for about five minutes, April; we’re moving the crane.”
“Copy that,” April replied.
I approached the driver’s side of the Toyota.
“It’ll be about a half hour wait,” I told him. “Good time to stretch your legs,” I added.
I had my ‘think cheerful’ hat on. I counted up my paycheck and smiled.
He glared at me. “Why can’t I go? There’s no one else waiting.”
Smile stayed but cheerful vanished. His mustache was bigger than my ex-husbands and he used the whole jar of wax on it. It curled up on the ends like my cat’s, tail does when he’s mad. The thing could have doubled as a stampede string for that fancy, silver-trimmed Stetson he was wearing. I swear it stuck out further than the brim. He could have tied it in a knot right over the crown of that hat. How he got in the Toyota without breaking the ends off, I haven’t a clue.
“We have equipment working in the road and we only have one lane for traffic.” I replied carefully. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait.”
Toyota was angry. After ten years of flagging, I have a sixth sense for these things.
“I’m late for an appointment. I can’t wait,” he growled.
I put my diplomacy helmet on.
“I’m sorry for the inconvenience. You’ll have to wait.”
I hoped he didn’t misinterpret ‘I’m sorry’ for sympathy.
“This job is a joke. There’re no other cars. I can get through without any trouble.”
I put my sarcasm hat on.
“Well,” I suggested, “you could go around the other way.”
If you have a Western States map you can use your finger to trace ‘the other way’ back to Wisdom, Montana, down through Montana to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and over to Idaho Falls in Idaho; or you could follow your finger along the road up to Missoula, Montana, and over Lolo Pass into Northern Idaho. It took a minute before his eyes narrowed.
At that moment Buzz’s voice came from the radio mic clipped to my jacket collar.
“Okay, April. Turn them loose.”
Toyota started up his rig. I shook my head at him and pointed at my hardhat. My name was printed clearly, “INDY,” in blue letters on white.
“Sorry,” I told him. “You have to wait. Other side first.”
“He told you to let your traffic go,” the guy shouted.
He attempted to edge around the barricade and me with his little rig. I moved to block his access. I was pretty certain my steel plate would win a pushing war with a Toyota. It was those American-made bumpers I worried about, especially older models. And pick-ups. Yeah, the bumpers on pick-ups hit right about here and I don’t have a guy like Buzz to get me new ones if I get flattened.
“No sir,” I replied, fed up. “April’s on the other end and her traffic is coming through now.”
“I don’t buy that,” he shouted. “You can’t make me wait. Get out of the way!”
The blood pounded in my ears. It wasn’t even ten yet but I wanted lunch.
“You’ll go when I say you can go. Just in case you’re curious, it’s a five-hundred dollar fine to run a road closure.”
April’s voice came over the radio.
“There’ll be ten, Indy. The last one’s a silver Subaru.”
“Thanks, April,” I replied.
Toyota was nosing forward imperceptibly. I stood my ground. He considered running me over. The bumper touched my pant leg. Maybe Mr. MightyFourbyFour was thinking about making me a rich lady like the flagger who got run over by a Lincoln last year in Boise. She bought a place in Maui and lives on mangos and surfers. Yeah, with my luck it would be my son and all his wake-boarding buddies living it up on a new ski boat with wood trim, a hot shower hose, and young Kimis and Annies suntanning in skimpy suits out of the Victoria’s Secret swimsuit catalogue.
“Water truck’s coming, Indy,” Buzz told me.
“Okay,” I replied.
Toyota would be right in the lane of the approaching water buffalo.
“You need to move back into your lane to wait,” I yelled.
If I moved from in front of him he’d try for a getaway. He slammed his gearshift into reverse and squealed backwards into his own lane. He jumped from the truck, waving his cell phone.
“This is completely stupid!” he shouted. “Who do you work for?” He pointed at me with the phone.
Uhh, ohh. It was a show down. Yeah, his mustache was wider than he was tall. I figured if he took off those fancy boots he’d be my height. You know what they say about little guys, don’t you? No, not that. The other stuff about needing to pick on people to make up for being small. This guy coulda worked for the IRS. I figured the IRS was founded by a little guy. He wasn’t Italian though. Italians don’t have a problem with size ‘cause they’re so smooth. Like olive oil. I like olive oil. I use it for everything. It feels like silk and tastes nutty.
Maybe I’d go to Italy when I sold my book—see all those gnarly trees and smooth men.
“Do you know,” I asked, “that olive trees live thousands of years?”
Apparently he didn’t like olive oil.
“Who’s your boss?” he ranted. “I’m calling the Federal Highway office.”
I couldn’t resist. I drew my radio out of its holster.
“Okay Quickdraw—one, two, three, dial,” I shouted as I pushed the keyboard real fast.
He was just too pissed to savor the moment. I heard the water buffalo approaching and stepped back so I wouldn’t get sprayed when it came around the corner.
The operator brought the Cat tanker around the corner with all the sprayers on. Quick-draw jumped back when he saw the huge yellow machine, wheels taller than the tops of the sign posts, wallowing toward him like a bloated praying mantis. Rainman shut off the water right at Quickdraw’s feet and the Cat tanker lumbered past. Rainman would take the beast up to a wide spot to turn around before heading back through the job. Lucky for Quickdraw that Rainman didn’t hose him. A little guy like that might drown in those sprayers. I almost drowned once when I stepped into the spray, thinking to cool off on a real hot day. Sharra almost called the paramedics. The force of the spray knocked me down and my hard hat rolled off the road into the river. I swallowed a bathtub of water and couldn’t breathe. I was scared to stand up ‘til Sharra assured me I had all my clothes on. I had water phobia for a week. My cat was the only one who understood why I didn’t take a bath all week.
April’s lead car rounded the corner—pickup with a camper pulling a boat. The driver honked and waved, smiling. Lucky April. Two bleary-eyed cowboys in a Chevy pickup waved and grinned, Texas-style. Their horse trailer read “NFR World Champions, Team Roping.” I wondered where they were headed. Calgary, maybe. Silently I wished them luck, gave them the biggest smile I owned and a thumbs up. Maybe I’d go to the Stampede when I sold my book. Traffic rolled past, folks waving, happy to have survived their passage. Seven vehicles. Eight. The ninth was a silver Saturn. There was no tenth car.
“That’s it,” Quickdraw said. “It’s my turn.”
He slammed his door and gunned his little red truck.
“That was not the last car,” I said, wishing I was mistaken.
April said “ten” cars.
“I heard your friend say the last car was a silver Saturn.”
“Silver Subaru,” I said.
“You ignorant bitch,” he yelled, “you can’t even do your job. I’ll have you know I am reporting you to the Highway Department and to your supervisor.”
He raced his motor. I had my mad hat turned backwards now. The last guy who called me that had to divorce me. There was a down-side to cutting off the ends of Toyota’s mustache with my STOP sign—I could get fired. The upside was I could lose my job. I opted for no side ‘til the shift was over. I blocked his rig again, and then heard the water buffalo coming back. I had to step out of the way. Toyota spun his tires, waved his phone threateningly, and screeched by with the water truck bearing down behind him in the other lane.
Yeah, all hell broke loose.
Around the corner came the straggler silver Subaru. Toyota was in their lane and the water-buffalo hogged the other lane. The Subaru driver had nowhere to go. I was running toward everyone, shouting, “Hey! Hey!” as if that would help. The yellow monster bore down on the Subaru and the speeding Toyota didn’t slow down. The little silver car swerved into the barpit.
The Subaru smacked into one of the road construction signs propped in a metal stand. I was breathing hard as I reached the car. I keyed the radio mic.
“Hey, Boss,” I shouted. “You gotta get up here.”
I peered into the Subaru. The driver, a gray-haired man I guessed to be in his late sixties had narrowly missed being skewered by the sign’s metal stand which had pierced his window like a lance. The top of the tripod had sliced through his inner arm, just above the elbow and was impaled in the back of his seat. The old guy was bleeding profusely. He looked confused and muttered incoherently. His wife appeared uninjured but was having a little trouble breathing.
“William,” she said. “William, what happened?”
I heard footsteps behind me. The driver of the Toyota appeared.
“You folks had a little mishap,” I said. “Do you hurt anywhere?”
William didn’t speak.
“No dear,” she said, shaking her head. “William? Is William okay?”
She stared at the blood pouring from his arm and went very pale.
“He’s pretty lucky, I think. I want to get him out of there and see how badly he’s cut. He’s bleeding pretty good,” I said.
She was quite pale.
“They okay?” Quickdraw asked, trying to peer over my shoulder.
“No,” I snapped.
His powers of observation were obviously faulty. I reached through the window, across the old guy’s chest, and moved his arm slightly; my stomach lurched. You don’t want to know how the flaps of the skin on his arm were arranged around that metal pole. I straightened and wiped my hands on my khaki’s so I could use the radio.
“Damn it, Buzz,” I shouted into the mic, “where the fuck are you?!”
I never talked to the Boss like that on the radio. Maybe I’d get fired. I decided that would be a good thing. I tossed my hardhat in the barpit. I untied the bandana from around my head.
“Hey, Indy, hon,” Buzz’s voice sounded surprised. “What’s up?”
I looked down. Blood pooled in the seat under the guy’s arm. How could blood come out of an arm that fast? I wondered how much blood was in a body and what all of it would look like in a bucket so I could gauge how much this guy had left inside.
“Get up here. Get Lifeflight,” I yelled at the radio.
“William?” the woman said. “William? Why won’t you answer me?”
“It’s okay, Lily,” he mumbled. “I’ll be okay.”
Thank god the Subaru’s door opened. I unfastened his seatbelt and reached across him to put pressure on his upper arm. Quickdraw helped me get him out. It was awkward, but I managed to keep my grip on the man’s arm until we propped him feet-down in the ditch. I let go long enough to tie my bandana tightly above the wound.
“You’re gonna be okay,” I said.
I didn’t take my hand from his arm again. The bandana slowed the gush, but blood still poured over my hand at an alarming rate.
“My wife? Is my wife okay?” he asked, his voice real thin.
I nodded and his eyes closed. The radio squawked, but I had no hand to answer. The woman got out and came around the car to where her husband lay in the ditch. She sucked in her breath at the sight of the blood covering my hands, the arms of my jacket and the front of my orange vest and the khakis. She made this tiny, wheezing cry and sort of crumpled down beside him. He did look pretty ghastly.
“You. Mustache,” I said to Quickdraw. “Take the microphone of my radio, push the button, and tell my boss to hurry.”
I added a second hand to the pressure on William’s arm. Quickdraw complied without remark. I hoped he could do it without getting that thing on his face tangled up in the cord.
“Where the hell’s Indy?” Buzz yelled, and I hid a smile.
Buzz would give this guy a whole basketful of grief. Blood seeped under my hand. I groped around with my fingertips to find the pulse. There! I felt the throb and pressed down hard.
A truck pulled up, its diesel motor wound all the way out. Buzz slammed on the skids before he and his truck joined us in the ditch. He leaped out, and left his door open, chiming.
“What the hell happened?” he growled, sliding down beside us.
I hesitated. I was worried about the wife. She’d laid back and gone ashen.
“Did you get Lifeflight? Buzzie, sweetie, maybe you better check… Lily here.”
I nodded at the woman. I couldn’t see Buzz’s expression because the sun was behind him and blinded me to look at him.
“She doesn’t look too good,” I added.
She was very still.
“Yeah. They’re on their way. If anyone else had asked for Lifeflight I’d have come to check first to make sure we really needed it. What the hell are you doing?”
He bent over Lily to check her pulse.
“I’m holding an artery. The sign stand went through their window and sliced his arm. I tied it off but I can’t let go—it won’t stop bleeding.”
Lily didn’t breathe.
“She’s not breathing, Buzzie. I think you better do CPR.”
“Shit,” was all he said.
He moved her so she was level, tilted her head back, just like he was supposed to. Yeah, he’d done this before, on the first project, when the drill machine pinned the operator against the hill for twenty minutes before anyone found him. We didn’t think the guy was ever going to breathe again. Buzz never gave up. He’s that kind of guy.
I heard the distant whump, whump, whump of a helicopter rotor. Buzz was sweating despite the morning chill. It dripped off his forehead and slithered down beside his ear. He kept the rhythm. Pump, pump, pump, pump, pump, pump, pump… breathe. I held my breath, counting. Come on, Buzz, make her breathe. Whump, whump, whump… the helicopter. Pump, Pump, breathe… A raven cawed. His buddy answered. The open truck door chimed, ding, ding, ding. Come on, Lily, breathe. The beat of William’s pulse under my fingertips was the ticking of a clock. How many beats before your time is up? Each beat took longer to arrive. Was the ticking slowing or was the moment stretching? Come on Lily. Come on. The rotor whump slowed as it grew louder. My own heart beat hard. I heard the pulse in my head until I couldn’t tell if it was my heartbeat or the helicopter. I tasted blood, the smell pulsed around me. Beats thundered in my ears and at my throat.
Lily gulped and coughed.
Buzz sat back on his haunches and sighed. I breathed. My hands ached painfully. William seemed unconscious but the beat ticked on. How many left before it came unwound? I was a prisoner of that tiny beat. I lived for it, breathed with it, the helicopter rotor kept it going. How many beats in a life time? How many left?
Buzz took his jacket off and put it under Lily’s head. He gave me a long, measuring stare which I couldn’t read because he had sunglasses on.
“What the hell happened?” he asked again.
I barely had a voice.
“There was a straggler,” I squeaked. “They met traffic coming head on in both lanes and went in the ditch.”
“You let a car go before April’s traffic cleared?”
His voice was uncharacteristically restrained. I liked it better when he yelled.
“No,” I said whispered.
My eyes stung.
“No,” Quickdraw said. “I ran her stop sign. She told me there was a car coming and I didn’t believe her.”
“And who the hell are you?” Buzz demanded.
The whump, whump, whump was loud now. Minutes out. Beats out. How many beats ‘til it lands?
“Name’s Tim Thompson. I—”
“Thompson, why don’t you do something useful and go get this little lady some water from my cooler. I’m going to see if I can find some identification.”
My hands were numb. I pressed harder to maintain pressure. William’s pulse seemed fainter. I tried to convince myself it was because my hands were so numb I couldn’t feel anything. My hip screamed in protest of the angle I was in—metal is grumpy sometimes. I wondered if it was after ten o’clock yet. William hadn’t said anything for almost ten minutes but that tiny beat fluttered in my hands like a promise. Lily took a sip of water from Tim. Buzz rummaged in the Subaru.
Lifeflight appeared over the treetops. Where Hwy 93 intersected Hwy 43 it was wide and flat. The helicopter hovered. Buzz walked out into the middle of the intersection.
Poor Buzz. He’d certainly had enough experience on his projects getting Lifeflight in. I hoped he’d forgive me for this one. Yeah, I wanted him to smile, to reassure me that all the beats would go on. I stared at his back as he used his arms to guide the pilot down. He was big, steady, like the 988. Do you know how big a rock has to be to flatten a 988?
I wouldn’t let go of William’s arm until the paramedic took hold of it. Actually, I couldn’t—my hands were paralyzed. The paramedic had to pry my cramped fingers loose. The old guy lost so much blood they put him in that puffy girdle thingie that squeezes the blood out of the legs and arms.
Buzz gave my sign paddle to Tim and told him to stop traffic. I heard Tim telling people they’d have to wait for awhile. Some lady was arguing with him. She was late for an appointment.
The paramedics loaded the couple and the 212 took off. I couldn’t get out of the ditch. Buzz gave me a hand up. I could hardly stand.
“You look scary,” he commented.
And he smiled.
Yeah, that’s when I started to cry.
* * *
William and Lily are okay. They’re from McCall, Idaho, and their family gave a Thank-You BBQ for the company. I went, but felt silly and nervous and knocked over my water glass and got Buzz all wet. He just grinned.
Tim “Quickkdraw” Thompson got ticketed and fined big—yeah, it’s double the fine in a work zone—and he had to do weekend community service at some unlucky nursing home. He called the governor and the State Highway Department. And Senator Kampthorn. Rocky Mountain and Sharra got a bonus for “excellent job performance in an emergency situation on a Federal job.” Buzz and I got little plaques. Tim Thompson got a big Verizon bill.
I’m almost finished with my book. And I wrote a short story about a swash-buckling space pilot—a big, grumpy guy with lots of ex-wives and a huge mustache—who pilots his ship through an embargo under the blazing guns of the Mantis ships to help a settlement on a small planet overcome a revolution. It won a Dell Award. But I cheated. I took all the characters from real life.