trucks: a short story
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I've been thinking about this short story, written when I was in my 20s, because of the story about which I wrote this blog post, for The Introvert's Corner, my Psychology Today blog. Life imitates fiction. Like the character in this story, the author of Spiral Jetta thought she would find romance and poetry in a roadside bar but ended up sneaking out and fleeing when the exotic started feeling threatening.
By Sophia Dembling
There was almost no one on the highway but Elizabeth and the trucks.
It was the dinner hour on a lonely stretch of Interstate between Arkansas towns. Elizabeth had been driving since morning. The beginning of the journey was receding, but its conclusion was still distant place at the end of a long road. She was neither here nor there.
It had been pretty easy. She got in the car and got on the road. A small street led to a big avenue, to a state highway, to the Interstate. But there she was struck by the distance she had to travel and the solitude of the journey.
The Interstates are a place in themselves, but that is no place. Designed for passing through, they allow no leisurely meanderings. Elizabeth was in new places before she even realized she had left the old ones. Signs led her from city to city, and in between was mostly billboards and nothing. The houses that sat by the Interstate were stripped of their intimacy, exposed to millions of passing eyes. Some had probably been cozy until the Interstate plowed through and changed everything.
This time of day, when the world is bathed in gray, always made Elizabeth feel as though she was dying -- as if it were not the light that was slipping away, but her life. Even with her headlights on, she made no impression on the darkness that descended on Arkansas. The radio was a tinny rattle. She had it on for company, but it made her feel lonely and far from home.
After the jilting -- an ugly, painful affair -- she had sold what she could, packed the rest in her old blue Chevette, said a few tearful good byes, and begun her journey. She thought it a brave adventure, when she didn't think it a foolish gesture or a cowardly retreat.
While the Chevette held the road with determination, the trucks possessed it with assurance. They shook the car as they passed, sucking it into their wind, pulling it faster and faster until it broke free with a shudder and the trucks sped off into the distance, points of red light disappearing into the twilight.
They moved with purpose, carrying America's products: Levis, Oreos and toilet paper, Jiffy Pop and Pontiacs and widgets and gears and cows packed nose to butt on their way to becoming burgers. Next to the trucks, Elizabeth felt inconsequential in her little car full of clothing and small mementos.
She could see nothing of the drivers but an occasional arm hanging out a window or a shadowy face in a side mirror.
She passed a roadside rest area where a dozen of the great machines were parked. Elizabeth imagined the drivers napping in the little bedrooms behind the cab. She wondered if they hung pictures of their wives and girlfriends inside. Thinking about it made her feel less nowhere. Even the road is somebody's home.
She turned the radio to a country-western station and sang along loudly with Johnny Paycheck, but her voice was immediately swallowed by the highway. She passed a sign welcoming her to Tennessee and imagined another chunk of land falling between her and who she had been.
As the last light faded, she was overtaken by a convoy of five trucks. They came up behind her suddenly, then ground and rumbled into slower gears as the road began to climb. Carefully arranging themselves on the road, they settled in at the speed limit, surrounding the Chevette. It was like driving in a school of buildings. Elizabeth's car seemed practically lifted off the road by the great wind and roar.
When they reached the top of the hill, the trucks reorganized with a series of signals, flashes, crunching gears and lane changes and Elizabeth lost them as they barreled down the other side. But climbing the next hill, she caught up with them and rode their wind again.
This went on for miles. It was a game, a dance. Elizabeth moved aside politely when a truck came up behind her, flashed her lights to let him know when he had cleared her and could move into her lane. Sometimes the drivers honked in appreciation and Elizabeth would wave, but she didn't know if they saw her.
It made her feel safe to see the same arms hanging out the window, the same license plates, the same "Wash Me," written in dust on the back of a truck with a load covered by a filthy blue and white striped tarpaulin. It was a mobile neighborhood.
An arm with a tattoo and blue shirt hauled a massive piece of machinery, or maybe it was just piece of a piece of machinery. It was round, it had valves and bolts. Elizabeth couldn't even guess at its purpose and the scale was almost frightening. She admired the muscles of the arm. The man who dumped her had slender arms and serious eyes and a million excuses for not making love. She didn't imagine the arm with the tattoo made or needed excuses.
A load of boat trailers was hauled by a beefy arm with hair that was turning white. The cab was painted with elaborate gold scrolls and identified the owner as Arthur "Bud" Uerlich of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A skinny arm with thick, black hair drove a moving van.
She imagined that from their high perches, the truckers could see only her legs. In shorts and barefoot, Elizabeth felt exposed. It seemed so intimate to be witnessed in her little pod, all her dials glowing.
And it was exciting. She was aware of the size of the trucks, the size of the men driving them, the size of the country she was crossing mile by mile in the deepening darkness. She had only ever driven as far as she needed and no further. She had only ever loved boys with skinny arms and no tattoos. She had only ever done the sensible thing.
Now she was Interstate. Everything was dark and fast and she was part of something big.
After about an hour, the trucks began a ponderous set of maneuvers that put them single file in the right lane. Elizabeth let them all pass and dropped in behind the last truck to see what they would do, as they were obviously working in unison. Ahead glowed neon announcing the Hi Way Truck Stop, a huge, brightly lit plaza that offered Food! Showers! Clean Restrooms! and Diesel. Dozens of trucks rested out front.
Elizabeth flipped on her signal, retaining her place behind the van as the line of trucks exited the highway. She would eat at the truck stop among the truck drivers. She was one with the road.
While the trucks pulled around to the side of the restaurant Elizabeth parked out front, next to the four or five other cars that had ventured into the land of the behemoths. Her legs were a little wobbly and the lights of the plaza were jolting after the soothing darkness of the road.
The walls of the dining room were decorated with hundreds of gimme caps bearing the names of trucking firms and horse ranches. Under the clatter of silverware and rumble of conversation, a small television droned on the end of the counter and a jukebox played Hank Williams, Jr. Along one wall was a row of huge booths with seats covered in red vinyl. Formica and chrome tables and chairs filled the rest of the room.
Elizabeth sat at a small table against the wall. There were just four other women in the room -- two waitresses, a fat middle aged woman sitting with a fat middle aged man, and a woman at the counter who might have been pretty before life got hold of her. Otherwise, the room was about half filled with men who surely belonged there.
A waitress with ratted blonde hair slapped a menu in front of Elizabeth.
"Coffee?" she asked, not looking up as she swabbed the table with a soggy grey rag.
"Please," said Elizabeth.
She opened the menu. Behind her, she could hear new customers entering.
"Hey, Texas" said a voice close behind her.
Elizabeth froze. What had revealed her point of origin? Then she remembered her license plate and looked up to see the tattoo, a grinning skull, standing by her table. Attached to the arm was a young man with a sunken chest, angular face, dark shock of hair and a day's growth of beard.
"You eatin' all alone?" said a bearded man in thick glasses and a cap.
"I reckon we'll sit right here and keep you company," said the tattooed man. "Since you been keepin' us company for so long."
He sat at a table across a narrow aisle from Elizabeth and the others joined him.
"My name is Ray," he said. "This here's Charlie." The bearded one grinned. "That's Bud," -- Arthur "Bud" Uerlich looked to be in his fifties and wore a sharp flattop. Another man, muscular and with mournful eyes and a toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth, walked up to the table. - "An' this here's Don," said Ray. Don sat at the table with the others.
The waitress returned with Elizabeth's coffee. "Are you boys bothering this young lady?" she asked.
"No we ain't," said Ray. "We're just gettin' acquainted."
"Well don't you bother her none," said the waitress. "What'll you have?" she asked Elizabeth, without displaying any sign of being an ally in the strangeness.
Elizabeth ordered a cheeseburger and the waitress turned to take the orders of the truckers. When she was gone, Ray turned back to Elizabeth.
"Where you goin', Texas?"
"New York, eh? New York City?" Elizabeth nodded. "I been to New York City. That's a helluva place. A helluva place."
"A helluva place to git ripped off is what it is," said Charlie. "What you wanna go there for?"
"I'm moving there," said Elizabeth
"Where you moving from?" asked Ray.
"Dallas," said Charlie. "Now Dallas is all right. I've had some real fine drunks in Dallas."
"I think," said Bud quietly, gaining the immediate attention of the rest of the men at the table, "I'd rather live in Dallas than New York City any day."
"That's the truth, Bud," said Ray, and the others nodded in agreement.
"It's awful crowded there," Bud continued slowly. "And I never seen any place so dirty."
"I've got a friend there," Elizabeth explained.
"Must be a special guy to get you to drive all that way," said Ray.
"It's a woman."
"You drivin' all that way for a woman?" Ray was incredulous.
"I thought it would be fun to live in New York," said Elizabeth. "She talked me into it. She needed a roommate."
"Don't seem like a very fun place to live to me," mumbled Bud.
"Ain't you got no husband?" said Charlie.
"No," said Elizabeth.
"You're pretty cute not to have no husband," said Charlie. "What's the matter with you?"
The men laughed.
"Maybe she don't wanna get married," said Don. "Maybe she likes being a free woman."
"I do," said Elizabeth. "I like being free."
"How free are you?" Charlie said, and the men laughed again.
Elizabeth, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the men, was relieved to see the waitress approaching with an aluminum tray heaped with food. She served up the dishes like a dealer flipping cards. The men's table was laden -- great steaming mounds of mashed potatoes, slabs of roast beef in thick brown gravy, bowls of yellow green broccoli, baked potatoes, hamburgers, eggs, bacon, grits, French fries, pie, coffee and Coca Colas.
Elizabeth bit into her cheeseburger. Ketchup, grease and blood oozed out, forming a small pool on her plate.
The men didn't say much while they ate. Don commented on the good weather they'd been having and the others grunted in assent. Bud gave his opinion on gun control, prompted by a news item on the television.
"Somebody comes after something that belongs to me," he said quietly. "I'm gonna blow his head off. I don't care what the law says."
Elizabeth ate silently. The burger had little bits of gristle in it and her soda was flat. The smell of the truckers' food was making her queasy.
"What you gonna do in New York City?" Ray asked through a mouth full of roast beef.
"I don't know. Get a job I guess," she said. "I sold clothes in Dallas."
"You work in a mall?"
"No. In a boutique on Greenville Avenue."
"Ain't that where all the bars are?" asked Don.
"There are bars there. There's other stuff, too. Stores. Restaurants."
"I just been to bars there," said Charlie. "Met a real nice girl there, once. Texas women is the best lookin' in the country."
"You drivin' that whole way by yourself?" asked Don.
"You gonna drive all night?"
"No, I'll stop somewhere."
"Shoot," said Charlie. "You can stay with me. I was just about to catch a few winks here. Course, we wouldn't have to sleep."
"Shut up, Charlie," said Don. "She don't wanna catch none of your diseases."
Elizabeth looked at Don, her savior. His face was puffy and his dark hair dirty, but he was attractive. He caught her staring and winked at her.
"You got a nice wife at home," said Bud.
"I guess I'll have to go to a motel," said Elizabeth, trying to play along, hating the conversation.
"Don't you mind us," said Ray. "We been on the road a long time. A pretty girl just gets us thinkin'."
The thought of their thoughts frightened her a little.
Elizabeth left her hamburger half eaten and ordered another cup of coffee.
When the men finished eating they leaned back, lingering over their coffee, smoking cigarettes and complaining about someone named J.J.
"That sumbitch has his head up his ass," Bud said. "Pardon my French," he said to Elizabeth.
"Shit,'' said Charlie, without even an apologetic glance at Elizabeth. ""He's too busy worrying about his dick to worry about his job."
"Well, a man's dick is his best friend,'' said Ray. "Ain't that so?" he said, turning to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth knew women who would know what to say to such a statement; she knew there was a certain bantering tone required, a way of joking back that would let them know she'd been around and could take their nonsense, but wasn't going to. Except she didn't know how to do all that and so she just turned red. Ray grinned and turned back to his conversation.
Suddenly, Elizabeth was embarrassed by the incongruity of her presence in the restaurant. The truckers' mystique seemed to have been left outside in their rigs.
Why had she expected poetry from them?
In their eyes she was just an unwanted salesgirl driving across country to a crummy place for no particular reason.
Ray's tattoo leered at her.
Elizabeth got a five dollar bill from her wallet and tucked it under her plate. She stood up.
"Where you goin', Texas?" said Ray.
"I've got to get back on the road," she said. "New York's a long way away." She attempted a friendly smile.
"Well, don't go yet," said Charlie. "I was just gonna take a shower."
While the men laughed, Elizabeth slipped away. As the door closed behind her she heard Ray shout, "So long, Texas."
The parking lot was loud with the roar of idling trucks and the buzz of neon. Her car was quiet and warm. It smelled slightly of the apple she had eaten earlier that day. She turned the key and flipped on the headlights. The dashboard lit up. She pulled out of the bright plaza and onto the highway, the road unfolding before the small pool of illumination her headlights cast. The Hi Way Truck Stop slipped into the darkness behind her.
Elizabeth drove another two hours that night. She stayed in the right lane and let the parade of trucks rumble past her.
Copyright 2009 Sophia Dembling
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