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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

Helpers (in Five Acts) - Part Deux

Happy snow day to all you crazy kids! In honor of it, I'm reminded of the one time (November 2017, back when I was a very naive 40-year-old) I tried to drive home - Kewanee, at the time - from Springfield in a full-scale blizzard. Several years later, I wrote this long-form essay entitled Helpers (in Five Acts). Youse people with long memories might remember that I shared the first few pages awhile back. So in honor of our first big snow this winter (and since I'm obviously not content to keep my stupidity to myself,) I thought I'd share another excerpt with you. At the beginning of this selection, I've already managed to get myself stuck halfway up a hill on a highway that I've driven hundreds of times. To answer your burning questions: Yes, I do know better; no, I never learn... happy reading, friends - stay cozy!




ACT III

Help comes, help goes.  Two men in a four-wheel drive truck try to push me.  They try and they try but my tires spin uselessly and I curse out loud when they refuse to catch.  The van slides a bit further off of the road, which is a blessing later but makes me angry when it happens. 

You better come with us, ma’am, one of them says but I shake my head. They are both clean-shaven, middle-aged. I’m not afraid.  I appreciate their willingness to help a stranger, but I’m unwilling to leave my van.  That’s the only reason.  I just want to get home myself, to my little house with the red shutters, to two of my sons and my only husband, the only one I’ve ever had.  I’m not afraid.

So they leave me, their taillights heading up the hill I couldn’t breach.  An irritating sight, given that I’m not able to follow, so I don’t watch them for long.  I can’t, the snow is so heavy and so thick that it muffles all sound and all light.  Nothing can compete against it.

I try and I try but I cannot make any further headway. I think of Sisyphus and his rock and admire him for even being able to get it up the hill, no matter that it rolled down on him over and over again. At least he made some headway, I think and curse and curse some more. I call my husband. This is tantamount to admitting defeat.  

Awww, shit honey, I’ll come out. Where are you again? he asks. His voice holds only the slightest trace of worry, a reaction more to the high pitch of my voice than his own worry.  I know underneath it all, what he’s thinking: She’ll be fine.  It’s what I am thinking too. 

No, that’s crazy don’t come don’t come. It’s pretty bad, you’ll get stuck and then what will we do?  I can feel my husband’s relief. He does not want to come and I do not want him to come either.  He drives a small Honda, great for gas mileage but not fit for saving anybody from a snowy crisis.

(Although it did once, on this very same highway. A woman who had spun off of the road after hitting a patch of ice that we had seen and managed to avoid.  I waded through the snowdrifts in the ditch while my husband and two of my sons sat in the car, idling on the lonesome highway, while I guided the woman who was short with short legs - I, who am not short and do not have short legs and was wearing boots, for once - through the snow, leading her to the small orange Honda where my husband, who is not any kind of good driver, not by any stretch, guided us all safely home. This very same highway, highway 78 from interstate 74 to home, what are the odds?).

He says he’ll bring our oldest son, a boy of sixteen, who is capable enough but is still just sixteen and can only problem solve on a limited scale. He is a bright boy but things like this are beyond the scope of a teenager’s abilities, especially when they rely so much on their mother to tell them that things will work out okay.

No, no, no, don’t come.  It’s not safe.  I’ll go with the next person who stops, I tell him and he says Okay, please do that, please just get home whatever way you can.  Don’t worry about the van. You can leave it there.  I agree, although I don’t remind him that I don’t have a choice, that I will have to leave it behind if I want to save myself tonight.

I call for a tow.  I call the company that’s only three blocks from our house, an obvious choice. They’re the ones who pull the big semis out of ditches on the interstate.  They’ll be able to get my van and me safely home.

Sorry lady, they’re about to close 78, says the man on the phone.  He does not sound sorry, only hurried.  Another line rings in the background.

What am I supposed to do then?

Get a ride, he says.  We can’t come get you now.  I’ll put your name down on the list and we’ll tow your van in the next week.

I hang up without saying goodbye.  Less than fifteen seconds later another set of headlights appears and slows, seeing my flashing red lights. I am saved, I think, opening my door to the cold.


My husband has always been a terrible driver, not necessarily meaning that he does not understand the rules of the road, but moreso that he never applies them to what he’s doing. I blame it on the Iowa Public School system, which I can do because I am not a product of it. When I say he is a bad driver, what I actually mean is careless.  Which is worse, in my book.  He does not look over his shoulder before he changes lanes, he does not signal before he changes lanes, he does not stay in his own lane.  He hugs the center line, he rides bumpers, he rolls through stop signs.  It is not pleasant to ride with him, especially through town.  Too many other drivers to be concerned about, too many scenarios to imagine myself hurt, maimed or dead in.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but you wouldn’t if you saw the state of his current car.  Trust me, you wouldn’t.  He’s a wonderful man, a terrific husband, a conscientious father.  He is a terrible driver.

It was inevitable that something would happen, a Big Bad, a Giant Catastrophe.  It did and he was hurt.  Thankfully, others were not, at least not enough to send them to the hospital.  He was driving alone, and that is a bigger comfort than one would expect.  I saw the empty carseats in the back.  It is a comfort to know that they were not filled that day.  He was life-flighted to the nearest level one trauma center in Peoria.  No highways for them, there was not enough time.  They took off, no room for me.  I followed with his mother and father, bewildered.  We took the interstate, we took the exit, we took the easy way.  His mother was driving.  Another small comfort.

This was twelve years ago.  We have not forgotten but we do not remember.  He does not remember the helicopter ride, nor the intensive care stay, nor the pain.  Blessed relief of memory.  I do not remember the grief, nor the anguish, nor the exhaustion.  Only the anger remains.  We have lived with it, our new life, as one must do.  It is just fine.  Neither of us would complain, knowing the alternatives.  But there are no guides for this kind of loss, no helpers on this kind of road.  There aren’t even any lines on it, there is no roadmap.  If there was, maybe it would be different. Unlike my husband, I am excellent at reading maps.


The headlights belong to a small, black SUV, which belongs to a man of indeterminate age, with a round, moony face and glasses. He is a big man. I’m not slim myself, so I don’t say this to be unkind, only truthful.

Need a ride, he asks.  

I’m screwed, I nod and laugh.  I laugh because there’s nothing else to do.  I don’t have warm clothes, I don’t have traction, I don’t have a way to stay. 

You’re saved, he corrects.  It’s only getting worse.  It will only get worse after that.  This will not end well.  You need to come with me.  We’re headed north. 

Me too, I say, getting in.  He does not offer to get out and help me push, which seriously annoys me, although both of us know that there was nothing to be done at that point.  I just do not want to leave my van.  Unreasonable, but there it is.

We should never have left Bloomington, he grumbles, gunning his vehicle up the hill. This is the difference between four-wheel drive in the snow and ice and front-wheel drive, although front wheel drive is better than rear-wheel drive, although many rear-wheel drive vehicles also have all-wheel drive, which is the same as four-wheel drive.  

(I should know all of this, but I had to do an internet search to write this paragraph. Forty-plus years old, born and raised and sheltered in rural central Illinois, and I do not know the difference without help.  I should be ashamed, but I should be ashamed of many things I don’t know. I will put this one on the list).

My helper gets me up the hill before he introduces himself as Ty.  His daughter, Alex,  sits in the back, the other portion of his vague we he gave me in the beginning. I quickly discover that he is the brother of an acquaintance of mine and Alex, a niece. I have probably had her in a class before, as I am also a substitute teacher, one of my many hats.  I do not recognize her, but this is okay.  She doesn’t recognize me either. 

We crest the hill and make it a few miles down the road.  A man appears in the snow, in the headlights, waving his arms in the white gloom.  Ty stops, as men do not usually appear on this road, waving their hands at you in alarm.

Don’t go any further, he says.  He has a mustache and is middle-aged.  Neither a big man nor a small man.  I just came from town and the roads are not safe.  They are not passable.  I barely made it home.

I do not say anything, but the obvious fact of the matter remains that he DID make it down the highway some twenty miles, because the town he was talking about was the town we were headed to, the town where we all three lived, even though I did not know them before they picked me up, Ty and Alex.  But I do know his sister and I know we all belonged there. But the man in the road is adamant.

Please don’t try.  The man in the road is adamant.  It’s really bad.  There’s cars in the ditch, in the road.  The roads will be closed soon.  You can’t go any further.

We can’t stay here, says Ty.

That’s my house over there, the man said.  He points to the southwest.  We have already passed the turnoff for his driveway.  Ty looks at me.  I shrug.

It’s your call, I say. I do not care if he goes on, I do not care if he pulls over.  What would be best for Alex?

He is a father, he has a daughter.  I am not and I do not, but I am one myself.  My father would keep going.  I know him.  He would.

Ty turns around, inching his way through the snow and ice that creeps up onto the highway and drives back south, far enough to reach a driveway, plowed smooth and safe, with only a bit of incline for us to muscle up to park.


ACT IV


It is an old farmhouse, nondescript, except for the rooms tacked onto it, additions that made sense years ago, but have only succeeded in adding to the confusion since. I have lived in houses like this so it is comforting.

The man who owns the house introduces himself as Joe.  He introduces his wife too, but I don’t catch her name in the confusion and I am embarrassed to ask later.  She is younger than him, or at least looks like it.  Women have more tools at their disposal to reach this end, though.  I know, I am one.  Two of their children are there.  An older teen girl, whom I barely catch a glimpse of, and a younger son, around twelve.  There are other strangers crowded around their massive dining table.  Three women with a baby.  One of the women is wearing flip-flops.  I felt better about myself immediately.  I was only underprepared, not stupid.

There is a baby with the three women and he is the ugliest baby I’ve seen in many years.  I can’t say ever, as that would be hyperbole.  I’m sure I’ve seen an uglier baby, but I can’t remember. This one is definitely Top Five.  He is scrawny, also underdressed although he does have a thick and cuddly blanket with Disney characters dancing around it.  He has little hair, his head is misshapen. Not enough that it gives off warning signs, but enough that he looks like something could be wrong.  He’s bright, alert, but his movements are herky-jerky; his cry is thin. 

(My boys - all three - were beautiful.  Big and healthy as babies, roly-poly, smiley, with deep fat-people laughs.  They’re handsome teenagers now.  Slim and tall, acceptable.  I do not focus on their looks, but others do.  This is how I know what an ugly baby looks like: not like my sons).

The women are all related to the baby - mother, aunt, grandmother.  They were headed up the highway to get to interstate 80, heading north and then west in a tiny car.  They thought it was a shortcut. I can’t help myself and I laugh. I am stuck too, but I am not stupid.

It’s not a shortcut to anywhere, I say.  You should’ve stayed on the highway.

One of the women, the mother, argues with me.  We were told this was the fastest route.

Okay, I shrug. I already don’t like these three women but I cannot say why.  One of them has bare legs.  One of them is wearing shorts.  None of them have appropriate footwear. My sneakers and thin socks look smarter and smarter, warmer and warmer.

Ty goes out to his vehicle to smoke.  I’ll watch Alex, I say, trying to earn my keep, but she is playing with the baby, unconcerned about his looks.  She is only nine, and she has her father with her.  I am alone.

The wife makes us all hot-chocolate, not from packets or even the old-fashioned way, but from a Keurig.  It is very good.  Her counters are covered in plastic clamshells of baked treats. There must be over a hundred of them, neatly packaged in groups of four or six.  She is a nurse, she explains.  Some kind of higher-up nurse that coordinates other nurses.  I ask questions, but I do not remember the specifics of her answers.  I always ask questions to seem interested, ask people the mechanics of why they do what they do, for a living, for fun, for necessity - and then I do not retain the answers.  It is a curse, it is a blessing.  I remember snippets, just enough to make me seem engaged with the world.  Once, on a visit to Nebraska, I heard the Platte River described as being an inch deep and a mile wide.  This is the state of my mind. 

The nurse-wife tells me that she was to provide treats for a conference tomorrow. It’s been called off already. 

Everyone must eat at least three pastries before they leave, she laughs. Counting the baby, there are seven of us. Including the family, that makes eleven. We’ll barely make a dent, I counter, and she says, You need to try.  She laughs again.

I try, eating one and then another bear claw, draining my mug.  It is all very good.  I text my husband. I’m safe, I say.  I’m staying at a farmhouse off the road for tonight.  The road is impassable.  It’s all safe now.

Okay, he texts.  I’m glad you’re safe.  Love you.  He trusts my judgment.  If he is worried he does not say so.

Joe and Ty both return to the house with news.  The state has closed down the highway, Joe says.  I remember what the tow dispatcher told me, about how this would probably be the end result, as if they were dooming me to being stuck.  I am not stuck though, just waiting.

What does that mean? the mother of the baby asks.  I don’t really know either, but I nod as if I do.  I’ve never been out in weather this bad. 

It means they aren’t patrolling or plowing the roads anymore, says Joe.  They’ve called off everything.  It’s really bad, you don’t know.  There were two guys in a blue truck ahead of y’all that I tried to get to come here.  They stopped for a bit, but the last I saw of them were their taillights.

I think of the two men in the truck who stopped to help me, to push my disabled van.  Had it been blue?  I think of their brown faces, warm in the light of the dashboard and how all they wanted to do was help, but they would not accept it themselves.  I think of how things would seem for them, men of color, and how things are for me.  I would not have come here either, if I were them, no matter how many pastries there were and how quickly the chocolate flowed, on demand. 

As warm as it is, and as comfortable this disjointed house feels, I wish I had accepted their offer.  I am not afraid but I do not want to be here, stuck in the company of strangers. I’d rather be making progress no matter how slight, no matter how dangerous, on the road home.

I go to the kitchen to refill my hot chocolate.  What else is there to do, I think.  Joe’s wife is there.  Let me do that she says, taking my cup without complaint.  

Joe’s oldest son died a few years ago, she whispers.  I can barely hear over the spitting, spurting sounds of the Keurig. 

I didn’t know, I say. 

It’s changed him, she whispers.  Stuff like this, it’s good for him. 

Of course, of course, I nod.  I do not understand but words like that cannot go unnoticed.


It has been several years since this night, almost three.  I do not remember if there were other people there.  I think there may have been another man, maybe two.  There were no other women - that I would remember - but what are a few more men hanging in the shadows?


Joe and his wife hash out the sleeping arrangements for everyone. They do have a guest room as such, but it’s quickly commandeered by the women because of the ugly baby and all. They do not ask, it is assumed.  I do not care or at least I act like I do not care.  I tell them I am used to sleeping on the ground.  This is true, this is false.  I do camp and I do love to camp and tent-camping is the only type of camping that is acceptable, in my opinion, but I usually do have a sleeping pad.  I don’t need a bed but I don’t want to sleep directly on the ground.  I don’t say this but it’s true.  I don’t but not because I don’t want to be annoying or a nuisance or be seen as difficult.  I do not care about being difficult, I just do not want to be seen as weak.  Give those other women beds, I think.  I just need a blanket, I say.

The women take the bedroom. Ty claims a recliner, settling his bulk into it with a sigh. Alex takes a loveseat.  I lie down on the floor. 

Joe and his nurse-wife’s son comes to talk to me. He is in junior high, my second favorite age of boys. They are just finding themselves in these years - twelve to fourteen - and they are wonderful and odd, awkward, funny without meaning to be, but they laugh when you laugh.  This young boy is no exception.  He tells me of his calf, tells of the 4-H awards he’s won for his diligence.  He is animated as young boys are, long and unselfconcious streams of words about livestock I’ve only known as stupid and unable to help themselves.  I was afraid of cows for much of my childhood; my grandmother kept them on her land, adjacent to ours, and many mornings we would wake up to find cattle in our yard.  They’d broken the bounds of the electric fence.  I did not like them then.  I admire them from a distance now. 

He talks and I listen, asking only a handful of questions in between all of his words.  I am lucky to be lying on this floor, in this place, listening to this boy whose age lies directly between my two younger sons.  I wonder if he thinks of the brother he lost. How well did he know him considering the generational age gap between them. Were they brothers through and through? Both of my brothers are still living, both years older than his brother, forever twenty-nine.  He says something about his calf, about its behavior, about how good it is, about how he’s trained it to be so good.  I marvel at this boy who knows more than I do about raising something apart from himself.  Then he tells me how he’s been offered money for it, but he won’t sell. 

Because you’re too attached to it? I ask.  The floor is hard against my back but I do not complain. I am fine, I remind myself.

Because I’ll make more money off of it if I wait, he says with a smile.  He looks down at me. 

Won’t you be sad? To let it go? 

A little.  But I always knew it was coming. 

Alex flops around on the loveseat, burrowing deeper into the crack between the cushion and the back.  Ty’s snores are deep, bone-rattling, staccato.  The boy’s mother shoos him upstairs, apologizing to me for his words.  He’ll talk to anyone, she says.  As if I am anyone, instead of a mother of sons who is sleeping alone in a room of strangers.  I can’t ask him to stay, it wouldn’t be appropriate.  I am a stranger to him.  

I unhook my bra but I don’t take it off.  I just need to get as comfortable as I can.  I turn over and fall asleep, all of my weight born against my left shoulder and left hip, the very hip I used to carry my own boys on before they got too big and had to walk on their own.


That can’t be all there was in that good-sized room.  There had to have been another recliner, and maybe there was another couch.  There must’ve been someone else there, sleeping on the couch or in a second recliner.  I would not have slept on the floor without any comfort if there was an empty, softer resting place.  I can’t remember, but there must’ve been someone else. 


I wake after a few hours. Ty’s snores fill the room, impressive, monstrous.  His breath catches at the end of every other snore and he stops breathing, starting again only when his brain is alerted.  I listen to him for several minutes, maybe a dozen.  I remember my middle son’s tablet stashed in my purse, the one I absently grabbed before I abandoned my vehicle.  I am not sleepy, the noise is too mighty, the house, too strange in the dark. 

The tablet is geared up to play the next Thomas the Tank Engine video.  I accidentally press play.  The theme music swells.  I frantically stab the pause button.  Alex flips over, the sound coming from Ty doesn’t waver.  I use the glow from the paused screen to find my glasses, glinting on the floor.  I cannot see well without them, but it is hard to find them in the dark.  I finally find them shoved under the pillow I was using. 

The tablet is also an e-reader, and I have a selection of books that I’ve downloaded onto it. I use it frequently, since my middle son is only home every other weekend, to re-read the few books stored on it.  I begin reading one about a woman hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It isn’t the blockbuster memoir Wild, but another story of another woman who also put on hiking boots to find her lost self.  I like it, I like the spare language, I like the theme of moving forward because there is no other option.  I like the warmth she encounters in the desert.  I like that she has no more idea of what she’s supposed to be doing than I do.  I like that she meets strangers and that the strangers help her.  I like that she has nothing to give them except her thanks and sometimes tears.  They do not want money from her.  They just want to help.  I know that she’s headed for the mountains - I’ve already read this one too - and some serious cold places, but I fall asleep again before I reach that part, Joe and his nameless wife’s kids keeping watch over me from their rectangles on the wall.


 I’d been to California once, a few years before this snowstorm.  My husband lost his job through a reduction in force - it sounds so much nicer than being fired, but the end result was the same - and we were grasping at straws.  We flew from Chicago to San Francisco and drove north.  The landscape was beautiful, green, after a long drought.  He was not offered the job but I got to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time.  I stood above it, on a cliff, as it beat against the rocks below.  I couldn’t have gotten close even if I had wanted to, which I didn’t.  We also drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in the fog, in the drizzle, in the dark.  It cost us fifteen dollars.  It was worth it so that I could say that I did it, not because I could see anything.  Some things are just like that, sometimes just being there is enough.


Pressure against my shoulder wakes me.  A figure hunched over me.  The boy, close.  I am not startled, I am not surprised.  It might be one of my own sons who has awakened me.

I’ll be sad, he says. I want you to know that. I’ll definitely be sad when the time comes for auction.

That’s okay, that’s okay, I whisper.  You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.  I know it.  I lace my fingers through his and we sit for a bit like this, hands clasped, while Ty snores.

This does not happen.  I’m almost sorry for letting you think so.  I do wake up again, but it’s because of Ty’s snoring. I read the book on the tablet.  I contemplate getting up for the bathroom but I do not want to move, not because I’m afraid, but because I’m feeling lazy.  I do not want to cross the shadows in these unfamiliar rooms.  It is too much work. Sorry, sorry for making you think the boy came again to me. Sorry for making you think there was resolution. Sorry, sorry - but boys do not think like this.  If they do, they certainly don’t say it aloud to strange women in the dark.


To be continued... maybe on the next snow day!

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