When Lauren worked for BYU’s records office, she made fifteen thousand per year . . . after her first raise. The man worked two jobs in the summer and one job during the fall and winter semesters. They lived in married-student housing, and they scrimped by, saving about fifteen hundred dollars over a year and a half.
They have spent half of that shipping their few household possessions across the country. They had rented furniture from BYU, so they don’t even have their own mattress, couch, or kitchen table. What they didn’t ship fits in the backseat of their car. Lauren is three months pregnant with just the hint of showing. They are riding in their purple Dodge Neon that they affectionately call Blue Thunder (the dealer tag said it was blue) and that their siblings call the Swamp Mobile. When it rains, water seeps into the trunk, and from the trunk, it runs down into the footwell of the driver’s side back seat. When it dries out, the car smells moldy and musty. When they were driving on I-15 to their honeymoon, the weather strip between the windshield and the frame flew off. It has crank windows and a half working heater and air conditioner. Their $123 monthly payment is their second largest bill next to their $450 rent.
It is late December. The man has graduated after three years in school. They are on day two of the drive east. Lauren has been working at Harvard Business School’s registrar’s office for the last six weeks. She has stayed with her parents near Boston while the man finished school. She flew out with her parents for everyone to do Christmas in Las Vegas, and now, they are on the road east. The man has no job yet, and he hopes to get one, then go to a creative writing school in the Boston area in a year or two.
Night has fallen, and they are in Iowa. Snow smacks the windshield, and their crappy wipers are screeching across the glass. High winds sweep across I-80, and snow is drifting everywhere. Soon, they see their first car off the road in a snowdrift, hazards flashing. Then, they see another. Then another. Then, they see their first semi off the road, front end plowed into a snowdrift, hazards flashing, its load twisted partway around. The man can feel that the car has no grip on the road. When he wants to slow down, his best move is to ease off the gas rather than touch the brake. The car shudders with each huge gust of wind.
Soon, they are seeing multiple cars off the road every hundred yards, and the count of rigs off the road reaches into the twenties before half an hour has passed. But drivers remain erratic. Most in the right lane are wanting to go forty-five or less, while rigs are passing them on their left going seventy or more. When they blast by, they leave a wake of air that rattles the car.
“There are rigs off the road everywhere, and these dudes are driving like it’s sunny and seventy degrees,” the man mutters to Lauren.
She pats his leg. “You doing okay?”
He grips the wheel tightly. “I know we wanted to make it to Illinois today, but I think we gotta get off whenever we come to a town that might have a place to stay.”
“Whatever you think,” Lauren says.
“I have almost no control of this car right now.” He eases off the gas again as the tail lights in front of him seem to loom closer. In his rearview mirror, he sees a car spin, descend the embankment, and land soundlessly in a snowdrift.
“How are they ever gonna get all these cars out? What are these people gonna do? Sleep in their cars all night?”
Lauren grabs the map book they have and starts to scan for towns. “What was the last town we passed?”
“I don’t even know,” the man says. “I’m literally just trying to keep us in a straight line.”
Another rig blasts past them, and he grips the wheel tighter as he feels the turbulence hit the car. A few miles ahead, he can see what looks like a highway overpass crossing I-80. Is that a town?
“Any idea what’s ahead?”
“I have no idea where we are,” she says staring at the map.
“There’s an exit up there.”
“Yeah. Think we should take it?”
“I have no idea. If you think we might find something, go for it.”
The man mutters an eyes-open, silent prayer, then says, “We’re getting off.”
He eases off the gas as they draw near, then turns the wheel ever so slowly. They ease onto the ramp, and Blue Thunder struggles to get traction going up the hill. The man works the gas carefully and at last comes to a stop sign. To their right is a hotel. The parking lot is completely jammed.
The man turns right, then turns left into the lot. They look at the sign more closely–it’s a honeymoon suites hotel.
“Oh geez,” says the man. “This will be more expensive than a regular hotel. Think we should still try it?”
Lauren shrugs. “Let’s go in and see what they say.”
They emerge from the car into the driving, freezing snow. They shuffle across the slushy parking lot and step into the warmth of the lobby. People in snow-covered coats stand everywhere. A woman at the counter says, “The line for check-in is here,” and she points to a group of people in front of her.
“What if we can’t get a room?” the man mumbles.
“I’m sure the town will have something even if this place doesn’t.”
After serving two families, the woman nods to the couple in front of them. A heavyset woman steps forward. The hotel attendant says, “I only got one room left, and it’s non-smoking. Is that okay?”
“Non-smoking?” says the heavy woman.
“Can you make an exception?”
“No, ma’am. And honestly, it’s the last room in town. All the other hotels are full-up thanks to the storm.”
“It’s the last room,” Lauren whispers to the man. “Geez, I wonder how far we’ll have to go.”
The heavyset woman looks at the man next to her. “You wanna just go?”
“Yeah,” he says. He looks at the hotel attendant. “We’ll pass. Thanks.”
“Really?” says the hotel woman. “The last room in town?”
“Yeah, we’re good. We’ll drive on.”
The man and Lauren step up to the desk.
“I’m sure y’all heard,” says the woman. “Last room in town. Non-smoking. $125. You want it?”
It’s $35 to $40 more than they have paid at other places. That’s not small for them on their tiny finances.
“Yes,” says the man. “I’d offer to sleep in your lobby right now.”
“All right,” says the woman. She taps a bunch of keys on her computer, then hands them plastic key cards. “You’re in the Fantasy Dream Suite. Two cards for each of you. Room service menu is in the room. Breakfast is downstairs at six.”
The man goes out alone to grab the suitcases from the trunk. He shudders from the cold and from the tension that has wracked him for the last ninety minutes.
Back in the room, Lauren begins setting out toiletries and changing to pajamas. “I mean, this is actually kind of awesome,” she says. “I guess if you have to get forced off the road, you could do worse than this. Huge hot tub. Little chocolates. Enormous, comfortable bed.”
The man sits on the edge of the bed staring at the carpet. “Yeah,” he says.
“You okay?” she says.
He looks up. Tears are streaming down his face. “Yeah,” he says, and he rubs the tears away with his fist. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m glad we got a place to stay. I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t gotten this place. I couldn’t get out on that road again.”
“It would have been tough. But it’s okay. We don’t have to worry about it. We got a place. It’s a real blessing.”
The tears are still coming. “I know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Let’s get some dinner,” Lauren says. “You could probably use some food, and hey, there’s a hot tub for after.”
He nods. “Yeah. Some dinner would be good.”