The rumble alerts Nelta that Frankie Farber and the white wolf are on the move. It starts like distant thunder: low, ominous. It grows louder, more insistent, more high-pitched with every click of the second hand on Nelta’s watch. When Frankie Farber’s truck passes Nelta’s house, the noise blossoms, fills the entire block, a mechanical scream swallowing all other sound. Birds erupt from the trees; Nelta’s windowpanes shake in their frames. On warm afternoons, when Nelta sits on her porch and waves to the neighbors, she can feel the passing of Frankie’s truck. It vibrates through her bones.
The white wolf rides in the bed of Frankie’s truck and seems immune to all the noise, just sits as serene and unflappable as a Buddha: head raised, mouth slightly open as if tasting the air. The white wolf’s shiny fur rippling in the breeze reminds Nelta of a comet’s tail every time Frankie Farber rockets down National Avenue.
Mornings, Frankie Farber races his truck down National Avenue on his way to the high school, blowing past the house Nelta’s parents bought in 1923, the house she and her husband Donnie wouldn’t move out of even after the zoning board declared the area a commercial district, even after the developers rolled in and tore down the other old houses, heavy machinery chewing wraparound porches, gabled roofs, reducing cedar-shake shingles and lath to toothpicks.
Nelta’s house abides, stubborn, among the fast-food joints and the strip malls full of nail salons and Radio Shacks and dollar stores and so many payday loan places.
The afternoons are louder than the mornings. Every afternoon Frankie Farber speeds up and down National Avenue over and over again, flying west past the McDonald’s and the Quick Lube, hard on the bumper of whoever gets in front of him, weaving through traffic like a squirrel hot on the tail of a lover. Frankie just goes, single-minded as a bullet, until he reaches the Marathon station, beyond which lies only the Sure Click seat belt factory and miles of family farms, a horizon of cornfields kissing sky.
Frankie screeches into the lot of the Marathon station, circles the pumps like an animal on the prowl. He makes a swooping left back onto National Avenue, heads east, right foot heavy on the gas, brakes squealing when a stoplight turns red, until he reaches the Shell station, the eastern boundary of the commercial district, where he turns around and starts the whole journey over again, and again, and again.
Before the white wolf started riding with Frankie Farber, it took him eight minutes to do one lap. Now, if Frankie hits all the stoplights just right, he can do a full lap in less than seven. Nelta times him sometimes as she sits on her porch watching National Avenue, marveling at the white wolf, and remembering Donnie, all his trips down National Avenue, Donnie driving alone, no wolf for company, off to work at the seat belt factory before the first grey light of morning.
Nelta likes watching National Avenue best during the holidays, after the city hangs the Christmas lights. Glowing candy canes cling to each utility pole. Strings of white lights arch overhead. The lights are the same every year, but, still, when Donnie was alive, they always made a special trip down National Avenue to look at the lights. Donnie always drove, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand rubbing Nelta’s knee. He’d sing Christmas carols the whole time, his voice low and airy, seductive. He’d sing sweet stories about Santa Claus, about Baby Jesus away in a manger.
Everyone in town knows Frankie Farber and his truck. The other women at St. Paul’s church complain about the constant racket, tell Nelta they don’t understand how she puts up with it. They all tell Nelta it’s time to sell her house, to get away from the bustle and noise of National Avenue.
The other women at St. Paul’s never mention the white wolf.
The white wolf was born in Nelta’s television. It happened this way:
One night, remote in hand, Nelta clicked through channels until she found a documentary on PBS about the suffering of zoo animals. Nelta watched elephants prodded with sharp hooks, a chimp so fat it could no longer lift its bulk to play on the tire swing hanging in its cage. But Nelta was most struck by the white wolf.
The white wolf’s fur shone bright and pure as polished chrome. Muscles rippled under its coat. Its chain-link cage squatted in the foreground of the TV picture, low and narrow, but long, maybe thirty feet, at least twenty-five. The camera moved back and forth, following the white wolf as it sprinted the length of that cage, legs churning, mouth open, ears back, until it reached the far wall, where it twisted its body around, quick as a viper, and headed back.
The camera swung to the right, revealing a zookeeper standing next to the enclosure, one hand raised, palm open, gesturing toward the cage like a pretty girl paid to show off game show prizes. Ta-Dah! The zookeeper explained that the wolf runs like this all day, every day. The camera pulled back, a long shot of the wolf running, running, running. The camera zoomed in on the wolf’s face. The wolf’s eyes, black as shale, focused on something past the horizon. The pink tip if its tongue dangled out of its open mouth. Drops of spit dotted the white wolf’s muzzle, sparkled like crystals in the light of the camera.
The morning after the zoo documentary, Nelta drank her coffee on her porch and heard Frankie Farber coming. She felt his arrival. Her bones buzzed like hummingbird wings. Her windowpanes shook in their frames. Nelta saw the truck flying past her home, and saw for the first time Frankie was not alone. In the middle of the bed, a passenger, thick white fur shining bright and pure as polished chrome. The white wolf sat with its head raised, eyes and nose pointed heavenward, content. Air rushed against the most fragile parts of the white wolf’s neck as Frankie Farber whipped through National Avenue traffic.
When she sits on her porch, listening to the rumble, watching the white wolf rocket by, feeling Frankie Farber careening down the road, Nelta doesn’t think about the noise. She thinks about Frankie’s dashboard, imagines Frankie Farber’s odometer, numbers spinning higher and higher, mile after mile clicking away. She pictures his gas gauge, the needle drooping steadily toward the glowing white E. Then she thinks about the wolf. What happens to the white wolf if that needle hits E?
Three a.m. Nelta sits at her kitchen table, mug of tea clutched in her palms, a pounding in her chest, in her temples. She listens to the ticking of the grandfather clock coming from her living room. Usually the clock sounds like Donnie, like the steady beating of his heart that used to lull Nelta to sleep, her head resting against Donnie’s bare chest. Tonight the ticking clock sounds more like claws clicking against her hardwood floor. It won’t let her sleep.
Nelta puts her mug down. It thunks against the top of the kitchen table. She rises and walks through the living room, walks out her front door. A breeze crawls up her nightgown. Goosebumps bloom on her legs. She remembers nights when she felt Donnie’s breath against her thighs. The concrete is cold and rough against her bare feet as she moves down the porch steps and along the path that leads to the driveway. As she reaches for the driver’s side door of her old Ford Taurus, Nelta feels the car’s key pinched between her thumb and finger like a dart. She tries to recall plucking the key from its hook under the kitchen cabinet. She can’t. She recalls only the grandfather clock’s ticking, the sound of claws clicking against hardwood.
Nelta’s car sways underneath her when she pulls the door shut. She puts the key in the ignition, turns. The engine growls. Nelta imagines the electric snap of the spark plugs, explosions punching pistons, the power of fire.
The dashboard glows pale green. Nelta looks into the rearview mirror, National Avenue silent and dark behind her. She turns a knob and the beams of her headlights slice through the darkness, illuminate her back fence, the spot where she and Donnie always planned to plant tulips.
Nelta grips her steering wheel with both hands, a feeling like holding a weapon. She puts the car into reverse, eases backward down the driveway. She pulls sharply on the steering wheel as her back bumper crosses into National Avenue. She straightens the car until the beams of her headlights point due west, towards the McDonald’s and the Quick Lube, toward the Marathon Gas sign, the Sure Click seat belt factory, too distant to see, but waiting. She slides her foot onto the brake pedal.
Nelta feels the car shaking gently all around her, hears the engine, a grumble. Nelta stomps the gas.
The car moves sluggishly at first, the automatic transmission shifting through its gears. Nelta mutters encouragement, the way Donnie would when starting their ancient lawnmower. “Come on, comeon, c’mon,” she says.
The grumble of the engine becomes a whine. The speedometer needle rises steadily, past 35, past 40. She reaches with her left hand to roll down her window. The whine of the engine, the wind filling the car. Nelta’s gray hair dances like smoke in an updraft. She opens her mouth to taste the air. She puts both hands back on the steering wheel. She tightens her grip. She sees ahead of her the Spiffy Clean Laundromat, the McDonald’s, two payday loan places, all with their lights on, all with their doors locked.
Then she is passing Kroger, and she is passing J.R. McCullough’s State Farm office. She glances down at the speedometer needle, rising past 60, past 65. The swatches of the dotted centerline flash past like bursts from a laser.
Nelta looks up. Her heartbeat quickens. She jerks hard on the steering wheel, swerves into the left-hand lane, her tires squeal; she races past a white minivan, her foot still heavy on the gas. She blows through a red stoplight hanging over National Avenue.
The wind rushing in the open window slaps Nelta’s face. She scans the horizon for other vehicles, but sees only the red, white, and blue Marathon sign, glowing, growing. She glances into her side mirrors. They have become kaleidoscopes, National Avenue transformed to streaks of white light and swirling bursts of color. In the mirrors Nelta sees captured the light from all those years of Christmas displays with Donnie. In the mirrors, Nelta sees her Taurus wears a comet’s tail, a great train of white light fading to pale blue.
The speedometer needle trembles, pushes against 80. Another red light looms above. Nelta keeps her foot on the gas. A check of the side mirrors. No cars, no trucks. Just the steady, warm glow of the comet’s tail. All those Christmases together. All those Christmas drives. All that light come back.
In front of Nelta, only the Marathon sign, growing, growing, growing. She takes her left hand off the wheel and grasps a knob on the dash. She twists. First the beams of the headlights disappear, then the Taurus.
The Taurus is gone, but Nelta is still there. And the white wolf is there. Nelta rides on the white wolf’s back. She stays low, leans forward, like a jockey pushing a horse toward the finish. The wolf’s body undulates against hers. Her arms encircle its neck, the wolf’s fur soft against her bare forearms, her cheek. The white wolf opens its mouth. The white wolf speaks with Donnie’s voice. The white wolf says, “Come on, comeon, c’mon,” and the white wolf sings Christmas carols, sweet stories about Santa Claus, about Baby Jesus away in a manger. Nelta glances over her shoulder. A comet’s tail glows behind her, around her. It spits sparks into the air. It crackles and hisses. Nelta’s body fills with warmth, unsure if the comet’s tail is part of her or if she’s part of the comet’s tail.
Tom Weller is a former factory worker, Peace Corps volunteer, and Planned Parenthood sexuality educator. He currently lives in Greencastle, Indiana, and serves as the Student Support Services writing specialist at Indiana State University. His fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including Silk Road, Little Patuxent Review, Pilgrimage, Epiphany, Litro, Booth, Phantom Drift, Paper Darts, Shooter Literary Magazine, Bite: An Anthology of Flash Fiction, and One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo: Fifty Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain photo, modified.