FICTION: Red Hill

The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The high pines on either side shed silver dust and show black against a cloudy sky slipping from grey to blue. Then, as the road curves, a warm glow – the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. What does the sign say? It isn’t clear, even when you squint. If you can just…

The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes as it slips and resists. The car’s heater exhales warm, dusty air from a slot on the dash. The high pines on either side shed silver dust, quiver with the weight of snow on their branches, and show black and razor-backed against a cloudy sky slipping from winter grey to night-time blue. Then, beyond the curve of the road, a glimpse of red – the warm glow of the neon sign of a small diner, a box in prefabricated aluminium. The sign says ‘Red Hill Diner’. Just a hundred more yards. Almost there.

The car labours up the snow-covered road. You ride the accelerator and the brakes. The car’s heater exhales dusty air. The pines shed silver, and quiver. They show black against the winter dusk. Then, beyond the curve, a red neon sign: Red Hill Diner. Just a hundred more yards, if the car will allow it. Come on, baby, come on. Off the road, into the small parking lot, salted and snowless. Park between two pickup trucks, neither old but both well-used. Switch off the engine, kill the heater, feel the cold at once.

The car labours up the snow-covered road between black pines until, beyond the curve, you see the red neon sign of the Red Hill Diner, two pick-ups in its parking lot and windows bright. You coax the car into the parking lot and switch off the engine. The heater dies. The cold begins to bite. You sit for a moment, looking out, beyond the faded red flank of the Ford truck to the yellow light of the diner window and the hot sizzle of the sign. Gloves on, hat on – time to leave the safety of the car and go inside, eat something, drink some coffee.

The car labours up the snow-covered road between the pines, towards the neon of the Red Hill Diner. You coax the car into the lot and kill the engine. You sit in the cold for a moment, looking at the light from the diner, before putting on gloves and your hat and opening the car door. It’s only a few steps to the door and as you get near, the sound of country music drifts on the air. You reach for the handle.

The car labours between pines, drawn towards the neon light of the Red Hill Diner and the promise of hot coffee and fatty food. Into the lot, kill the engine, gloves, hat, and out. Just a few steps in the cold to the door. You reach for the handle and pull. A bell rings as you enter. The lights are off, suddenly, and nobody is here. A voice on the radio sings ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. You wait for a moment, listening, watching the shadows for movement. Everything abrades.

Up the hill between the pines, as fast as the car will go in the snow, desperate to reach the neon sign of the Red Hill Diner and drink a cup of hot coffee. Into the lot. The car radio is playing ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’ and you leave the engine running so you can listen to the final verse and the sob in Vern Gosdin’s voice as he realises his wife is leaving for good. The song ends, a jingle begins, you kill the engine. The cold hits at once. You glance towards the door of the diner and its warm light and will yourself to move.

The car struggles along Red Hill Road as it curves towards the sign of the Red Hill Diner, beneath tall pines and covered with snow that looks blue in the twilight. You park between two Ford pick-ups and don’t hesitate – you need a cup of coffee and something to eat, and it’s cold in the car. You slam the car door, lock it, and dash across the salted asphalt which crunches beneath your leather soled boots. You grab the handle and enter. A bell rings as you slip into the heat and light. The smell of used coffee grounds drying on the griddle give the air a black tang. On the radio, ‘The Sounds of Goodbye’. There is a woman behind the counter. She has dirty-blonde hair and a blue uniform that needs pressing. She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes. Time holds, space distorts.

Red Hill Road seems to go on forever. You push the car over the snow, riding the brakes and accelerator. Every now and then, the tires fail to bite and the car slips backward. Your hands, in the leather gloves Sherry bought you the Christmas before she left, grip the wheel too tight. You need a break – you need a coffee and something to eat. As if you’ve summoned it with that thought, you see a glow ahead beneath the black pines with their silvered branches: a diner in an aluminium box with a neon sign. Just a hundred yards more and then, under a blueing sky, you glide onto the salted parking lot and take a spot between two Ford pickup trucks, one blue, one faded red. You kill the engine and brace yourself for the cold. It’s only a couple of steps to the door but you know it’s going to bite. After a moment, like somebody jumping into the frozen sea, you launch yourself out of the car, slam the door, and head for the entrance. A bell rings when you enter and you hear country music, smell burning coffee grounds, and see a woman who looks a little like Sherry at the same age. Before you can utter a greeting she says, in a quivering whisper, “Go! Get help. Get. Help.” But you can’t – you are stone and the air is heavy electricity.

You sit in the car with the engine off. Your hands are on the wheel, warm in the leather gloves Sherry bought you before she left, and the neon light of the diner washes you red. The Red Hill Diner, Red Hill Road, Davisburg – you’ve been here before, though you can’t remember when. Perhaps you drove through this way back in ‘76 when head office was pushing those new livestock insurance policies. You need a coffee but you’re too tired to move and you know it will be even colder outside the car. You sigh. You make a move. A few steps across the salt-strewn asphalt, up two steps, and in through the door of the aluminium box. A bell rings. “I call your name and hear a deafening silence and the closing of a door,” sings Vern Gosdin from a radio. The waitress behind the counter looks afraid. Her eyes lead yours to the floor: at the end of the counter, a pair of legs and feet in heavy work boots. A shadow moves across the back wall – someone is coming from the kitchen, whistling along with the music on the radio: “…a violent rush of teardrops from my eyes…” Somehow, his very tread is mean.

The car labours up the snow-covered road beneath dark pines that disappear into mist. Night is falling and the world is turning blue. You see a neon sign up ahead – Red Hill Diner. You could really use a cup of coffee, you’ve been driving in this god awful weather all day, but as you draw near, something tells you not to stop. As you pass, the car floating soundlessly, now, you watch shadows move beyond the condensation on the window – slow, submerged ghosts. People you will never know.


Main image adapted from a photograph by Christos Christou at Unsplash.com.