Of course, I shouldn't even have been there. I should have been in bed like most people were at the time, pleasantly dreaming off a Thanksgiving dinner. But I wasn't; I was driving, trying to get home. I was really getting away from a critical mass of stuffy relatives.
So I was on the road, or what passed for it. I set out right after dinner and had been driving all night, pushing through the remains of an icy snowstorm. It was the early hours of morning; a wan light barely pierced heavy, gray skies. A bitter crosswind dragged whirls of snow across the road. And I inched along, often unsure where the lines were, sometimes not knowing if I was even on the right path. I was completely alone out there, except for the thin sound of pre-Christmas sale jingles on a distant radio station.
And then there was a bend. Black chevrons on brilliant yellow signs encrusted with ice heralded it. I automatically laid off the gas as I entered it, but the rear of the car angled out anyway. I spun out. Adrenaline burst through my veins and I snapped awake. The car skated in a lazy circle despite my efforts. Then it stopped. With my heart pounding hard, I sat for a few moments and caught my breath.
I zipped my parka, and got out to survey the damage. I was still mostly on the road. The car sat at an odd angle in the lane with one wheel off in frozen gravel. I would be able to just drive away, thankfully. Had the car gone another few feet, I would have driven over the embankment into a steep ravine. I peeked over the edge, imagining what could have happened, and was startled to discover that it already had.
Several furrows in the snow led over the embankment. Below that, the smooth slope of snow was churned up, mixed with dark earth, growing more chaotic as the tracks reached the bottom. And at the bottom lay the twisted remains of a truck. I just stood there, staring down at the fate I had narrowly avoided. Everything was silent in the muted hush that snow casts.
I made my way down the hill as fast as I could. I slipped several times, coating my backside with icy clumps. When I reached the bottom I trudged through the snow to the cab. The truck lay on its driver side, a thin layer of snow covered its jagged and battered skin. The windshield was gone and the roof was badly misshapen.
At first I didn't see the driver inside. As I crept closer, I realized I hadn't seen him because he wasn't completely there; he'd been decapitated. The body hung limp in its seatbelt. I turned away and retched, wobbling around to the other side of the truck to void my Thanksgiving dinner.
Dizzy, I crouched in the snow, which seemed for the first time merely cool and calming. I unzipped my coat and felt better with the cold rush. What was I supposed to do? We were in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't seen anybody else the whole night, and I didn't have a phone with me.
I resolved to drive to the nearest town and just tell someone, then be on my way. As I turned to head up the hill, I spotted the truck driver's head. I didn't want to go over and look, but like anyone, I felt compelled despite my repulsion. My disgust turned to stunned curiosity as I stood over it. It was smiling. I sat down heavily in the snow and stared at it. It stared at me... smiling. It was frozen solid.
Like I said, it was an accident. I didn't mean to do what I did. I don't really even know why I did it. I took it home with me. I think its smile enchanted me.
I sequestered it in the freezer, standing it up in its own corner. It sat there, beaming its happy smile next to the frozen peas, as wisps of frost drifted out.
I know it probably wasn't a nice thing to do, and it certainly wasn't smart. I had no idea what his family would do, if he even had one. Maybe it'd be a closed casket funeral. Or maybe they'd substitute a small pumpkin for his head. I sort of wanted to tell them they needed to draw a smile on it.
Every day or two I'd open the freezer door and just stand there, staring at a man who had no reason to smile, but did it constantly anyway. And he'd stare back at me. It was disquieting on a lot of levels, more than just that of, "Excuse me. You have a head in your freezer."
My performance slipped at work. I'd sit and make lists like "Reasons to Smile When You're Dead." They'd be filled with a lot of pabulum about living a good life and being nice to animals, but I never came up with anything very convincing. I'd always zoom home at 5:00 to sit and talk to my smiling friend.
On the other hand, I had lots of items on my list of "Reasons to Have a Smiling Head," not the least of which was "Have a giggle and swap jokes." His weren't always very funny, but I think he tries.
Lately I've been putting him in a gym bag full of icepacks and taking him out to see stuff. We went to the zoo recently, last weekend we saw a movie, and last night we sat in a coffee shop and chatted for hours, at least until water was really running out of his bag and we had to go home.
So hey, I'm going home now. We're going bowling. Say "hi" if you see me out with the gym bag some evening. I'll introduce you two.