Helpers (In Five Acts)
Accepting help doesn't come easy to many of us, me included. Sometimes, though, we have no choice. I wrote the essay this excerpt comes from in response to a fateful drive home during a blizzard. It's much, much longer - chapbook-length, for those of you in the know - and hopefully will be published soon (fingers crossed!) Enjoy, and be careful out there! But if you happen not to be - like a certain person I know - look for the helpers, like Mr. Rogers says...
The man pulls up behind and gets out. There were actually men, but I didn’t know this at first. The highway is dark and snowy. It is late November. It is rural Illinois. I should’ve been prepared. I am not.
(Note: This narrative drives this particular tale, but that’s not what it’s about. I’m rarely prepared or only halfway prepared and things usually turn out just fine. We’re all still alive anyway, that’s what matters. I am fine).
I don’t allow the man to knock on my window because it’s already open and I’m already hollering through it at him.
Can you help me? I yell even though the snow is falling softly. Softly but heavily. I must think it creates some kind of black hole that sound cannot escape from. In reality, it is all so quiet with only the heavy shushing of passing cars that I hear but cannot see.
He is tall, taller than me, and I am pretty tall for a woman. I am not afraid. I am so rarely ever afraid of a man and never of men as a collective. Men are brothers, men are fathers, men are sons and husbands to me. They are fixers, they are helpers. They are there to lift heavy things. They are there for their expertise, for their experience, for their strength if that’s what I’m needing. Not to take away or to do for, but to help. I don’t like the shit they pull sometimes, neither collectively nor individually, but I am definitely an admirer. A lifelong fan.
He folds himself into my front seat. With my permission, he tries to get me up the incline. No matter which way turns the wheel, trying to find purchase, he doesn’t get far. My van tires spin. The front ones are worn thin, he says, even though I’d just had my oil changed and the man there said nothing about the tread. I will have to make a visit to my tire guy, I think. He’s another of my favorite men. He only does tires and he does them well. He doesn’t need to veer from his lane. He knows his place.
The tall man cannot get me up the off ramp. He consults with the man he left behind in his truck. He shouts from my van so I’m privy to the entire conversation. Their voices are friendly, comrades in crisis, however minor. They are trying to figure out the best way out of this situation.
He’s going to push me over to the shoulder, he says. Okay, I’ll help, I say, jumping out of the passenger side.
The man in the back flashes a smile through his big beard. He is not very old but his beard makes him look older. He is thicker and shorter than the man in the front.
Let’s give it a heave, he says. We try once, twice, three times. The tires spin. The fourth time we both shove and fall to our knees because the van moves and my driver takes it to the top of the off-ramp. I shout my thanks to the bearded man and run-skid up to the top.
I am already cold. I do have a hat but I do not have my mittens. I’m wearing a down jacket, but the cold exceeds its warmth. I have on light track shoes and regular, un-insulated socks. The snow is deep already. We were all warned that it would be. I know better than this.
I’ve lived in various spots in central Illinois my entire life. Those of you who live outside the Midwest recognize Illinois only for Chicago. It’s a wonderful city, I agree, full of bright lights and music and culture and people I don’t have a chance of encountering in my humdrum mom-life. But I live in the cornfield part of Illinois. Cornfield and soybean, I should say, dotted with varying degrees of woods. I grew up in the woods, I like to tell people. But it’s a small swatch of woods - sixty or so acres - surrounded by farmland. Corn and Beans, Beans and Corn, Variety is the Spice of Life, reads a shirt that my father wears ironically. Although it’s not all that ironic when you actually live it. It’s just true.
I’m a country girl born and bred, even though I’ve lived most of my adult life in town. Country to me means woods and sticks and rocks and creeks. Our neighbors might disagree - they are farmers. My grandfathers were all farmers. We were never farmers. My parents just loved the solitude. They were also gifted the land from my grandparents, my mother’s parents, and so it was a no-brainer for them to build their home and their lives there.
All of this is to say that I know better. I grew up on a gravel road, just off of Illinois Route 95, on a hill that iced over in winter, so much so that my brothers and I would sled down it in the deepest parts of December and January and sometimes February, one of us keeping watch at the top for cars. I know how treacherous a winter can be in rural Illinois. Animals die, people die. Cars and trucks get stuck. I’ve been stuck before, in numerous ditches, in my own driveway. Heaters quit. Power goes out. Everyone sleeps together for warmth. In a rural Midwestern winter, gloves and mittens and hats and blankets and warm socks and boots are not negotiable. I am not a fool. I am just foolhardy. I always rather take the risk than the time to prepare. I am usually never caught out in the cold. I am usually, most always, lucky.