J. Brent Bill – The Crossing [Short Story]

AmityRead a short story from this excellent new collection… 

Amity: Stories from the Heartland
J. Brent Bill

Paperback: Roundfire Books, 2023
Buy Now:
BookShop ] [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]


The Crossing
by J. Brent Bill

I am driving fast along the blacktop ribbon that cuts through the Midwest farmland that my friend Donald calls “God’s Own.” Donald’s a man of slow words and a slight drawl, so it comes out “God’s Zone.” His thoughts do not gush out of his mouth like some people’s do. They trickle out one by one, like a persistent leaky faucet. I have to pay attention or I’ll miss one or two of the drops and his meaning will be lost. Donald’s a farmer and the cadence of his speaking matches that of the gentle risings and fallings of the land he makes his living on.

“God had farmers in mind when he made this part of Indiana,” Donald says. “Look out there. Finest topsoil a man could want. Miles of rows. Some creeks and small ridges, but no deep valleys or tilting hillsides you’d have to maneuver your tractor and planter around. It’s pick your spot on the horizon and drive to it. Once you’ve driven far enough, turn around and head back. Yep, it’s God Zone, alright. Laid out by a farmer for farmers.”

It doesn’t look much like God Zone today. It snowed quite a bit a week ago and has been so cold since that the snow is still there. Fortunately, all of last spring’s plantings of soybeans or corn have long been picked and stored. The wind shifts and shapes the snow, sculpting a sort of white Saharan landscape. I almost expect to see a tribe of Bedouin trekking across the pale dunes. They and their camels would have to be bundled up like Eskimos, though, to beat this cold.

The snow is so white that it seems to bleach the sky of its color. The sun shines wanly in a pallid blue sky. Remainders of corn stalks push up through the snow, like whiskery stubble on an old man’s mis-shaven face. The shadows are deep and the snow is glaring.

The wind whips across the unbroken miles of fields, gathering speed as it howls along. I pick up speed, too, like the wind. Only I’m pushing against it. Dublin Pike is a short cut home and I’m in a hurry. It’s been a long day teaching classes at the college in Richmond and I’m ready for a chair by the fireplace and glass of scotch.

Fifty miles an hour. Then sixty. Soon seventy. I’m grateful for the Henry County road crew that cleaned the pike. Some wisps of snow drift across, but there’s no ice to be wary of. The wind pushes at the car. It’s ten degrees out and the windchill makes it feel like zero out there. Inside, the heater turned up, it’s nice and warm though. I’m grateful not to be out in that swirling Arctic air.

There’s not much to look at. A few farmhouses sit in the snow, white on white. Fence posts poke up through the snow as if to take a look around. If they see their shadows will winter last longer? In the distance are patches of woods and a small-town skyline – two grain elevators and a water tower. You have to watch the road on a day like today.


Most roads around here are good and straight, laid out in mile square patterns established long ago. Dublin Pike is an anomaly. It’s not straight in very many places. It’s a winding old road that twists and turns along a little creek and where old woodlands used to be. It connects Dublin on the old National Road to where I live in New Castle and runs through two or three small burgs on the way. Dublin Pike was a mud road when it was first built. It carried horse drawn wagons filled with orchard apples and field corn to market. Now it’s black top and tractors, combines, cars, pick-up, and semis run its route at speed the old farmers in their wagons could scarcely imagine.

Summer is not always friendly to Dublin Pike travelers. The only time I know when the county highway crew has been out filling in cracks in the black is when I hear the pop of fresh tar under my tires. I curse the highway crew and the specks of tar that will coat my rocker panels. On those days, in the evening, I’ll have to park the car in the driveway and sit with a kerosene-soaked rag, wiping the tar off.

Not today though. Would that it were summer. There’s no fresh chip and seal to worry about, but there is snow. The wind is trying to push me off into the duned ditches. It has a co-conspirator in the snow. The snow tells the wind, “Pick me up. Blow me across. I’ll freeze fast and he’ll slide on me.” The wind agrees with this plan and blows little ghosts of snow waif-like across the road, in ever changing, hypnotic patterns. A light hand and firm grip on the steering wheel are called for. Back and forth the road winds. I’m winding with it.

The Indy 500 is run sixty-six miles from here each May and I’m driving as if the Dublin Pike was part of that track. Swooping low into the corners, high coming out of the turns. It would be easier to keep turning left, like in the race, and the wind and snow are coaxing me to do that. The road chooses to go another way and I must follow, back to the right. Then left again, around the big bend just north of New Lisbon. The name on our town’s water tower is almost close enough to read now. The sun glints low across the hood and I squint to see the road. A long straight-away, a big turn and another long straight-away into town.

I slow down. The speed limit through town is forty. It feels like crawling. Then I’m out onto the open road and push down the accelerator. Soon the speedometer tickles seventy-five. I check the mirror to make sure the county sheriff isn’t ready to escort me to the side of the road. All clear. I have to slow down to go over the railroad tracks ahead, but that’s all. They’re safe at fifty-five. I’ll have to slow down. But off to my right, across the fields, I spy a train coming. A long one. Three gleaming black Norfolk and Southern engines with white stallions pawing the sky painted on their sides are pulling coal cars, box cars, autoracks, and intermodals stacked with shipping containers.

Why today? Why now? I’m tired and almost home. Maybe if I hold my speed, I can beat him. He’s still a ways off. The warning lights haven’t started… oh, they just came on. Still, I’m at seventy now and if the tracks are fine at fifty-five, wouldn’t they be okay at seventy?

I shoot a sideways glance at the train. I sigh. I’ll be here all day if I stop. Fifteen minutes at least, maybe twenty or more if he has to stop, back up, and drop a car or pick up one in New Lisbon. The engines are dieseling along, puffs of exhaust hanging above them in the cold and then being whisked into oblivion by the howling wind. The horn sounds as he tries to warn me off. I barely hear it over the whistling of the wind and the sound of my tires on the black top. I can make it. I keep my foot steady on the accelerator and eyes fixed ahead.

I hit the crossing flying, soaring over the tracks as the car catapults up the roadbed ramp leading to them. The warning lights are flashing, lighting up the inside of the car with an alternating red glow, and the warning bell is clanging. The sound of the horn blasts through the closed side window as I sail in front of the train. The car lands hard and slips a little on the snow and ice on the other side. The train roars by behind me. As I work the wheel to correct the little bit of skid, I see something out of the corner of my eye. It’s my right rear hubcap, jarred loose by the landing, bouncing down the road, heading for the safety of a snow blanket in the ditch. I swear under my breath and stop the car.

The train presses on, its patient progress persistent. The ground shudders as it passes, as if from tiny earthquakes. I put the car in reverse and back up, mumbling and growling as I try to spot where the hubcap is hiding. Finally, I see an edge of it peeking out from the snow filled ditch. I should put my coat and hat on. I don’t plan on being out long, but wind chill’s at zero. I reach over to the passenger seat and grab the coat. I mash my hat as low as it will go. Open goes the door, on goes the coat as I stand up. I zip it up and pull on my gloves. The wind, happy to have me outside, tries to steal my hat. My ears feel as if they’ve freeze dried.

Now where is that hubcap? There it is. I reach down carefully. I don’t want to fall face first into the ditch, though it would serve me right for having been in such a hurry. I pull the hubcap free from the snow and turn back to the car. Something catches my eye.

It’s a short wooden cross, about fifteen feet away, back toward the tracks. It sits white in the snow, its paint peeling. A bunch of wind-whipped plastic flowers shudders at its base, a faded pink ribbon wrapped around the cross flutters in the wind. It looks as if it’s been there a long time. I don’t remember seeing it before. But then I’m usually rushing to or from teaching and probably don’t see a lot of things along the pike. I know what it means, though. Someone didn’t beat the train. There on the flat farmland a steady rhythmed freight train had ushered someone into another sort of God Zone.

My need to know who and when overpowers my desire for warmth, but I don’t know why. I wander back to take a look. The name and date have been worn away by the elements. Just specks of black paint where they were are all that remain. Now there is only the paint peeled cross, the ribbon, and the fading plastic flowers.

The wind stings my eyes and they water. My feet are getting cold and urge me back to the car. My heart says be still. Just stand here. I feel the throbbing of the train’s passing beneath my feet. Or is it the train? I stand in silence looking alternately at the sad little cross and the train. I look up and see the last box car coming. The one I did not want to wait for. If I don’t hurry, the line of cars waiting behind the wall of the train will be clear to pass and I’ll be stuck at the end of the parade, farther behind than if I had stopped when warned to.

Still, I stand. But just for a moment.

Then I race back to the car, rip open the back door and toss the prodigal hubcap onto the floor. I jump into the front seat and move off as fast as the snow and wind will allow, pulling away from the crossing where we’d met, the quick and the dead. The cross is lost to me now, its paleness swallowed by the washed-out landscape shining white in the wan winter sunlight.

Copyright J. Brent Bill, 2023. Used by Permission.
Published by Roundfire Books, 2023.

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!
We respect your email privacy

In the News...
Christian Nationalism Understanding Christian Nationalism [A Reading Guide]
Most AnticipatedMost Anticipated Books of the Fall for Christian Readers!
Funny Bible ReviewsHilarious One-Star Customer Reviews of Bibles

Comments are closed.