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Slices of LifeA Selection of Short Stories and Poems
By Michael Patrick Mullaley
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Michael Patrick Mullaley
All right reserved.
Have you ever stopped and let the wind
Blow the smell of spring on your face?
Have you ever peered into the heavens
And felt small by its endless space?
Have you ever helped a child in need,
Been rewarded by a gentle touch?
Have you ever tried to extend yourself
And throw away the crutch?
Have you ever gazed into the eyes of love,
Felt shivery and warm within?
Have you ever broken a window or light
And felt a little sin?
If you have never felt a thing, my friend,
Then it's time you gave it a try.
For it would be a shame, I think,
If you just lived to die!
Two Flats past Midnight
Whop. Whop. Whop. Whop. Whop. That sound, combined with my dad's white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, was proof positive: we had a flat.
"Jesus Christ!" yelled my dad as he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. "This is a helluva way to start a holiday." He eased the crippled '56 Pontiac over onto the shoulder of the deserted highway.
Dad stood more than six foot two and weighed over 220 pounds. He had enormous shoulders and an ex-football player's body that had gone to fat from excessive drinking. When Dad was mad, everyone, especially me, kept silent.
"It's darker than the hubs of hell. What time is it?" he asked as we got out of the car. He opened the trunk and groped through the pile of camping equipment for the car jack.
"Ten minutes past twelve," I replied and peered nervously into the blackness of the night.
Dad instructed me in how to change the tire, cussing my mistakes and saying nothing when I did something right. By the time the job was completed I had several bleeding knuckles, and even though there was a slight chill in the summer night air, I was soaked in sweat.
"That didn't take too long," said my mother as Dad and I climbed back into the car. She had been sitting quietly in the backseat.
Dad grunted a reply and pulled the car back onto Highway 97, more commonly referred to as the Yellowhead Highway.
Whop. Whop. Whop. Whop. We had barely gone six miles since the last flat. Now we had another and no spare.
"What the hell's going on?" Dad yelled as he fought for control of the car, finally bringing it to an erratic stop on to the shoulder of the road.
If you weren't so cheap and bought decent tires instead of retreads, this probably wouldn't happen, my inner voice said mischievously.
"Now what do I do?" Dad said in a huff. He got out of the car, slamming the door behind him.
Mother and I slunk down in our seats and peered out over the top of the dashboard. He just stood there, glaring down at the flat tire.
Rather it than me, I thought to myself.
As if catching my thought waves, Dad aimed a menacing look at me. Reluctantly, I got out from the safety of the car and slowly walked around to where he was standing.
It's only flat on one side, I mused. My inner voice was always piping up with sarcastic sayings, most of them pointed at my dad. I blamed it on the fact that I was an only child. I always kept my thoughts to myself; Dad wasn't much on humor. Dad wasn't much on anything, especially a displaced cockney kid—like me—who, at fourteen, barely weighed 120 pounds soaking wet.
"Well! Take it off," said Dad, glaring me into action. "Then we'll have to flag down a passing vehicle." As he got back into the car he added, "If one ever comes."
After I had taken off the flat tire, we all sat in the car in silence, watching for a would-be rescuer.
My mother rested her prematurely gray head on the backseat and peered out the rear window into the darkness. She was still pretty, but her looks had faded since we had arrived in Canada three years earlier.
She's probably thankful she doesn't have to look at my father, who was slumped against his door, gnashing his teeth, I reflected. I did a lot of that—reflecting I mean.
He stared through squinted eyes at the road ahead. The grating of his teeth sounded like the ticking of a time bomb. I looked back and forth, from Dad to Mom and back again. What a pair, two total opposites—Dad, a Canadian, and Mother, born and raised in England—who, if it had not been for World War II, would never have met. I was the product of that short romance, a war baby.
I wanted to laugh out loud, yell, whistle, scream, and do anything to break the silence. But I didn't. I wasn't that stupid.
Finally my mother yelled, "I think I see something coming."
We all looked out the back window and stared at what looked like two pinpricks of light. They seemed not to be moving, and then ever so slowly they began to get larger.
"Get out. Stand by the side of the car and prop up the tire in front of you," said Dad.
I didn't need to be a brain surgeon to figure out that he wasn't talking to my mother and did as he instructed. Dad turned on the emergency flashers and then jumped out of the car and began waving his arms in front of him. In the brightening headlights he looked like a giant moth gone berserk.
As if in answer to my prayer, the semi started slowing down, and as the driver applied the engine brakes, they rattled like the sound of a machine gun. They echoed throughout the still night, but as I shielded my eyes from the glaring lights, they sounded beautiful.
With a loud expulsion of air the driver applied the air brake and climbed down from the huge rig. "Got a problem?" he asked jovially.
"Yeah," said Dad with a forced laugh. "I've had two flats in the last couple of miles. Could you give my son a lift to the nearest garage to get one fixed?"
My son! Oh yeah; the only time I was his son was when he had to send me off into the coal-black night, joyriding with some strange truck driver. Why me? Send Mom! My thoughts raced as I stared in fright as the trucker approached me.
"Sure. No problem," replied the short, heavyset man. "Lefty's gas station's about thirty miles down the road." He grabbed the flat tire from in front of me and effortlessly hoisted it into the air with one arm.
Probably eats teenage boys for breakfast, I thought.
"Come on, sonny, just follow me," he said, walking back to his truck. He flung the tire in behind the cab, opened the door, and waved a hairy arm for me to jump in.
My feet were planted. I didn't want to go anywhere.
Finally, Dad gave me the fatherly help I needed—a shove on the back that propelled me forward like a cannonball.
"Whoa there, sonny," laughed the trucker, and he quickly stepped in front of me. As he caught me by the shoulders, he looked over at my father and said sarcastically, "Anxious, isn't he."
I think he realized that he had just prevented me from smashing into the fender of his truck. My father made no reply but spun around and got back into the car.
"So much for fare-the-wells and salutations," snorted the trucker, and he tossed me effortlessly up into the cab of the truck.
"Buckle up, kid, 'cause this truck goes like hell." After closing my door he walked round to the driver's side and effortlessly jumped up into the cab. Closing his door he chuckled, "Here we go," and geared the metal behemoth into motion.
I swallowed deeply and cast a lingering look at my mother, whom I was positive I would never see again.
"What's your name, kid, and where are you headed?"
"Mike," I said as I fumbled with the seat belt. "We're going to Fife Lake, Saskatchewan, to see my granddad. He lives on a farm, with my aunt's family. It's where we go every summer."
"Hi, Mike! My name's Chuck," he replied and stuck out a hairy, bear-like paw of a hand.
I hesitated a moment and then reached over and shook it. My hand felt like it had become imprisoned in a metal vise.
"Have you ever ridden in a semi before?" asked Chuck as he pulled out a plastic package from his shirt pocket. In the soft glow of the dash lights I could see the label "Big Red" on the outside of the cellophane package. He deftly opened it with one hand and stuffed a generous wad of the chewing tobacco into the side of his mouth. "Mother's milk," he said and, after carefully refolding the package, shoved it back in his shirt pocket.
"No. I've never been in a big truck before," I replied, massaging my right hand.
"Well. This here's a KW with a 230 Cummins under the hood. She just loves to eat up highway."
I looked in amazement as he simultaneously worked the two gearshifts. "What's a KW?"
"What's a KW?" he roared, slapping the steering wheel with his left hand. "KW stands for Kenworth, the Cadillac of trucks, my boy! That's what a KW is."
If it's the Cadillac of trucks, where's the eight track, and why does everything look so bare? I wondered, but I said nothing, frightened to offend.
"Your dad must think pretty highly of you, to send you out on your own like this."
I rolled my eyes. If only he knew. I searched for an appropriate answer, one that would sound convincing. "Yeah ... Dad and I are ... close. He relies on me quite a bit."
Chuck gave me a sideways glance and pressed his lips together. "Yup," he said finally, nodding his head. "I know what you mean ... Try as you may, try as you might, your dad doesn't think you can do anything right?"
I was surprised at his little ditty and also at his understanding. "Right," I replied with a smile and settled back in the seat.
"That's how I became a trucker—got fed up with my old man's bullshit. So one day, I just up and took off. Got a job driving a truck and haven't ever gone back. That was over twenty years ago. My old man could be dead for all I know—or care," he said with a note of sadness.
I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say anything. I just sat there in the semidarkness and watched Chuck shift gears. I felt an instant bond with this stranger. But I was determined more than ever to make my old man proud of me.
"Well, there's the gas station," said Chuck as he started gearing down. The headlights silhouetted the outline of a large building, but the closer we got, the darker and darker it looked. Chuck brought the truck to an air-breaking halt, and I looked out over the enormous hood at the garage. My stomach turned to ice. The place was deserted. Chuck eased the truck up to the gas pumps so that the headlights illuminated the garage door. A large block-lettered sign read:
CLOSED. OPEN FROM 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. DAILY.
I glanced at my watch. It was 12:50 a.m. I looked from the garage to Chuck, wondering what to do.
"Sorry, kid. Lefty must have changed his hours," said Chuck as if reading my mind. "The way I see it, you've got two choices. McBride is another 120 miles up the road, but it has an all-night restaurant and garage. It's a favorite trucker's stop. I could get you a ride back with another semi, so you could be there and back before this place opens. Or," his voice trailed off, "you can stay here and wait for this place to open."
I looked out the window at the hauntingly vacant garage. It seemed like a setting for a Vincent Price or a Friday the Thirteenth movie. I snuggled into the bucket seat and, with as brave a voice as I could, said, "I'll carry on with you."
"Good call," said Chuck, nodding knowingly. He slid the gearshift into low and snaked the semi back out onto the highway. With large clouds of black smoke belching from the double exhaust stacks Chuck smoothly brought the rig back up to speed.
The vibration of the cab and the steady throbbing of the diesel engine along with the shadowy figure of Chuck were all reassuring to me. I was warm, secure. My eyelids began to creep closed. The lashes felt sticky. My head bobbed up and down like a yo-yo as I resisted the inevitable. Eventually I succumbed to the warm cloak of safety and eased into sleep. I dreamed of desert pioneers and salty swashbucklers braving the ravages of the world, all returning home—just before 8:00 a.m.—as heroes.
"Hey, kid! Wake up. We're there."
I was puzzled. Who would dare shake Captain Blood so vigorously? I looked at him curiously. Then, as the brilliant lights from the all-nighter cascade into the cab, I suddenly realized where I was. I rubbed my eyes sheepishly and said through a widening yawn, "I guess I fell asleep."
"I guess you did," laughed Chuck. "Out like a light for over two hours." He maneuvered the truck in between a car hauler and a Lafarge cement truck. "Just starting to fill up," he added as he nodded at the thirty or so rigs that were already parked. It looked like a miniature city. All of the trucks were idling, their upright exhaust pipes puffing smoke like house chimneys, their running lights looking like Christmas decorations. It looked warm and inviting.
"There we are," Chuck said as he idled the truck down. "Just open the door and climb on down. We'll get that tire over to the garage and get it fixed in no time." He ended with a laugh. Chuck seemed to be always laughing, not like my dad, whom I couldn't ever remember laughing.
By the time I had figured out how to open the door and climb on down, as Chuck had put it, he was out and gone. He carried the flat over to the garage, gave them instructions as to its repair, and was patiently waiting for me at the entrance to the restaurant.
"The mechanic's already working on your tire. It'll take about twenty minutes, so you've got time for a coffee or soda pop." He smiled and ushered me into the diner, where it seemed like everyone knew him.
"Hi, Chuck! Training a new driver?" asked a portly, grizzled-faced man wearing a black baseball cap.
"You old coot. You get uglier every time I see you," replied Chuck with a loud roar as he slapped Bill on the back. "You're just the man I wanted to see." He sat down at Bill's table and motioned for me to do the same.
Although the whole place was staring at me, everyone appeared to be friendly. I wasn't afraid. I felt I belonged. I grabbed a chair and joined Chuck.
"Bill, this here's Mike," said Chuck as he pointed at me. "His folks are broke down about 150 miles back, just the other side of Lefty's garage. Had two flats—can you believe the luck?"
Bill shook his head. "Greenhorns?" he stated.
"Yup," answered Chuck. "His tire's at the garage. When it's fixed could you give him a ride back down the road?"
"No problem," answered Bill as he extended a gnarled and weathered hand in my direction.
I tried not to flinch as Bill's stubby fingers encircled my outstretched hand, and I wondered if all truckers had hands like iron. The other problem was that I hadn't shaken this many hands in my life and was unaccustomed to so much kindness.
"What'll you have, Chuck?" asked the waitress with a smile. She was a slender woman with her hair pinned in a bun atop her head. She seemed to be wearing a lot of makeup.
"Kate, this here's Mike. I'll have a coffee. What do you want, Mike, and don't say Kate, 'cause she's my girl. Right, Kate?" boomed Chuck jovially.
Kate giggled affectionately and stared down at me.
"Just a coffee," I replied weakly.
While we were waiting for our coffees Chuck carried on conversations with just about everyone in the café, exchanging humorous insults and pleasantries with equal abandon.
When the coffees arrived, I gulped down half of mine and, turning to Chuck, said, "I'm just going to check on the tire." Before he had a chance to reply, I was up and out of my chair and heading for the garage.
Once I'd paid for the tire out of the twenty dollars my dad had given me, I rolled it over to the front of the restaurant and propped it up just outside the door. I then used the change to pay for our coffees. I didn't know if Dad would agree or not. At that particular moment, I didn't really care.
"How's everything?" asked Chuck when I rejoined the table.
"It's all fixed," I said. I finished the rest of my coffee and looked over at Bill.
"Well, I guess you'd like to get going then," said Bill and quickly finished the remainder of his coffee. He gave Chuck a friendly slap on the back. "Keep it between the white lines," he added.
Excerpted from Slices of Life by Michael Patrick Mullaley Copyright © 2012 by Michael Patrick Mullaley. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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