Harlan Ellison

The Night of Delicate Terrors

In the sovereign state of Kentucky, Kin Hooker mused, hunching over the wheel,it is possible to freeze to death and starve to death with a pocketful of money .

In the back seat, Raymond cried out in his sleep, and Alma reached back to straighten the heavy car robe over him. “How’s Patty?” McKinley Hooker said to his wife.

Alma straightened around and let air escape between her lips. She stared straight ahead through the windshield at the barrage descent of thick, enveloping snow that wrapped the car in a hush. He had to repeat the question; she did not look at him as she replied, “Still sleeping. How much gas we got?”

He winced at her grammar. That was the only thing about Alma that distressed Kin Hooker. But it was easily attributed to the degree of schooling she had received in Alabama.

“Should have enough to get us over the state line. Is gas more expensive in Indiana?”

Alma shrugged and went back to her absorbed sighting into the slanting white. In the back seat, Raymond turned on his side, moving closer to little Patty’s warm body. They huddled together against the January bite that reached them despite the laboring car heater.

“Damned road!” Hooker murmured under his breath. They were traveling at a pitifully slow pace despite the firmness of the concrete dual-lane. A cold front had blitzkrieged down from the North earlier that evening, catching the hard, cold Kentucky countryside in a noose of below-zero snow and raging winds. All traffic had begun to crawl, with jack-knifed trailers and cars tossed this way and that in the ditches at the roadside. On every turn cars spun out helplessly, leaving their inhabitants stranded … for no one could himself chance helping them, with the risk of being stuck omnipresent.

Now the snow had piled along the inner lane, leaving only the outer passable to the horde of traffic heading upstate. Across the humped median, the traffic going South was in like shape.

McKinley Hooker’s back hurt terribly, and his hands on the wheel were cold. He felt a graininess in his eyes, and there was a persistent throbbing in his right temple.

They had eaten all the food in the lunch basket earlier that evening and now, as the dash clock read 2:25 A.M., they knew they would have to find a motel for the night. Kin had been driving since seven that morning with only infrequent gas stops, and his back just under the shoulder blades, at the base of his spine, in the area of the kidneys, was so sore he had slumped into a half-crouch over the wheel, round-shouldered and uncomfortable, from which he was not certain he could emerge.

And the blizzard was getting worse.

No gravel spreader or snowplough had come out yet, and it was a safe bet none would till morning. In the meantime, conditions were getting unbearable. With only one lane open at all — and that covered with a veneer of ice — and snow drifting in from the sides constantly, there was no telling how long even their fifteen-mile-an-hour pace could be maintained.

They would have to find a motel. Someplace to eat, where the children could get warm, where they could bed down to restore their strength, for the balance of the journey to Chicago.

They would have to find a motel …

He tossed the thought like a wild mare shedding its rider. Then he looked into the rearview mirror, and saw the futility of the thought.

His chocolate face with its keen eyes and wide, white mouthful of teeth stared back at him. And Alma was even darker.

He screwed his hands down tighter on the wheel.

There had only been three colored motels between Macon and this lost point somewhere in the Kentucky darkness. Three motels, and all of them disgusting. Kin Hooker sometimes wondered if there was any point to fighting. This conclave in Chicago, now. He had been selected by all of them as the Macon, Georgia, representative. He was to receive his instructions, and then one day …

He decided not to think about it. It was all in the future; a special kind of future that he never really thought would come to pass, but which he dwelled on in hungry-souled moments.

Right now, the problem was to keep alive.

“Kin, we gonna make Chicago tonight?”

“I don’t see how, honey. It’s as good four hundred miles, and frankly, my back is sore as hell right now.”

“What we gonna do? You figure we can sleep in the car?”

He shook his head, keeping his eyes riveted to the faint twin beams of brilliance cast so feebly through the swirling curtain of snow. “You know we’d have to keep the engine running, and even so the heater wouldn’t do us much good tonight; looks to be dropping fast out there.”

“They gonna be a stop along here somewhere?”

He tossed her a fast glance. She knew it had come to this, too. It always did. They didn’t talk about it, because you can’t talk about the facts of life constantly without growing bored and despairing. “I don’t think so. Maybe. We’ll see.”

He turned back just in time to apply the brake before he hit the rear of a farm truck. It was an old truck without taillights, and as he slapped the brake, then pumped quickly, the car lost its feeble grip on the road, and began to spin. He turned into it, and they managed to straighten without losing acceleration.

But for a shuddering time without measure, now that the danger was past, he sat rigid behind the wheel, his eyes locked to the road in shock, trembling uncontrollably.

It was decided, for him, then. They would have to stop at the very next motel or restaurant. He knew what would happen, of course. He was not a stupid man; in the secret crypts of his thoughts be often damned himself for not being a “handkerchief head,” illiterate and content to let the white boss run his life. But he had grown up in Michigan, and it had been a good growing-up, with only a scattered few of those unbearable incidents he now wished to forget. Oh, there had been the constant watching of caste and conversation, of course, but that grew to be an instinctive thing. In all, it had been satisfactory, till he had been inveigled into going to work in Georgia.

Then he had learned the ropes quickly, as he was wont to phrase it. He had learned what the ofay meant when he said, “The lines of communication between the nigger and the white man.” It was not plural; there was only one line. The line that read:I’m the Massa’ and you’re the One-Step-Up-From-A-Monkey, and don’t forget it.

McKinley Hooker was not a stupid man, and now, because he had been chosen, he was an emissary to a conclave in Chicago. A very special conclave, so he had to make it.

There had been many years of taking orders, and now he had a new set of orders, the final wrinkles of which would be ironed out at Chicago. So he had to get to the Chicago conclave, and find out what the final instructions were to be; then he could carry the word back to his people in Macon.

Perhaps … perhaps it would be the beginning. The real beginning, where those who searched for the word would find the word, and the word would betruth. Perhaps. If all the gears meshed properly, then perhaps.

If he managed to stay alive through this January hell. He cursed himself for bringing Alma and the children along; but it had been clear all the way up from Georgia, and they had never seen Chicago. If they could only get to a motel. If …

Far ahead — or what seemed far ahead — lost in the crisscrossing lines of snow, he thought he saw a flamingo-flash of neon. He strained forward, and wiped at a spot on the windshield where the defrosters had not cleared away all moisture. The flash came again. He felt both a release and a tension in his stomach muscles.

As they drew closer the red flasher could be seen whirling atop the restaurant’s roof, casting off its spaced bdip bdip bdip bdip of crimson. The redness swathed the ground in a broken band and was gone, to reappear an instant later.

The sign was forbidding, it said: EAT.

Alma turned her head slowly as Kin decelerated. “Here? You think they’ll serve us?”

He rubbed his jaw, then quickly dropped the hand back to the wheel. He had a day’s growth of beard, and none of them looked too well-starched after on the road. “I don’t know; I guess they’ll just have to feed us; you can’t turn people away on a night like this.”

She chuckled softly. He was still a big-town colored, in many ways.

They turned onto the snow-hidden gravel, and Kin pulled carefully around two gigantic semitrailers near the entrance. Then as they drew around the bulk of the vehicles, the sign that had been blocked-off winked at them. MOTEL FREE TV SHOWERS and underneath, in a dainty green worm of neon: VACANCY.

The semitrailers bulked huge, like sleeping leviathans, under their wraps of snow. It was getting worse. The wind keened around the little building like a night train to nowhere.

He stopped, and they sat there for a moment, letting the windows fog up around them.

Alma was worried, her brow drawn down, her hands in their knitted gloves interlocked on her lap. “Should we stay here while you go in?”

He shook his head. “It might have some effect if all of us went in together. Stir their hearts.”

They woke Raymond and Patty. The little girl sat up and yawned, then picked her nose with the lack of self-consciousness known only to a child upon awakening. She mumbled something, and Alma soothed her with a few words that they were going to stop and eat.

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