“You gonna finish that?” Artie stubs a blunt finger in the direction of my English muffin. We’re sitting in a Travel America rest stop, one of the several that we’ve visited on this west-to-east run. He likes to keep on schedule; I like to pause for an hour and get the blood flowing in my legs again after hours in the cab of the eighteen-wheeler, inhaling Artie’s cigarette smoke and drinking warm, flat Coke. TAs are little shopping centers, catering to folks who live on the road, modern Gypsies, with anything you can think of for your vehicle from oil to mud flaps to little bobblehead dashboard figures of football players and Jesus. The restaurants offer big man’s meals, all-you-can-eats—chicken-fried steak, biscuits, apple pie. How hungry can a man be who has sat in a rig all day, keeping busy with radio and Red Bull?
“No. Take it.” Unlike the majority of the people jammed into the booths and bellied up to the counter, I have no appetite, no desire to heap my plate with eggs and sausages. The good hot coffee is enough for me. I’m hoping that Artie will stay put long enough for me to visit the ladies’ shower room.
I’m riding shotgun with Artie Schmidt because I need to get back to the East Coast. He comes into my bar pretty regularly when he’s not on the road. It was Candy’s idea, hitching the ride instead of flying. She knew that round-trip airfare would make me have to choose between rent and food; and a one-way ticket might mean that she would have to find another girl. Besides, this way I could take Mack with me. The idea of being in my stepmother’s presence without an ally was unthinkable. Going with Artie meant that I could take my dog with me, and there is no way I’d subject my Sheltie to being cargo.
Frankly, it was Candy who convinced me that I had to go east in the first place. My stepmother didn’t reach out often, or at all, so when she called to say my father was failing, it was almost impossible to get past the fact that it was Adele on the phone, rather than take in the fact of my father’s dying. Wicked stepmothers are only in fairy stories, right? I’m here to tell you that Cinderella had it good compared to what that woman put me through. But Candy said I should go, that it was important. Family is important. Right. Despite my better instincts, I set my course eastward and signed on with Artie Schmidt. Mack, my blue merle Sheltie, right alongside me. The boyfriend who gave Mack to me is long gone, but my little man stays, keeping his long, pointy nose at my heels wherever I go.
Candy Kane—and that’s her real name—runs a decent tavern just outside the city limits of Seattle. I’ve lived pretty much everywhere. Starting when I walked out of the house the day after high school graduation, getting as far as Somerville, where I bunked in with a pair of roommates I found on a message board in a coffee shop. Then down Interstate 95 to Brooklyn, where I might have stayed; then Florida, then Louisiana and Texas. I have made my way as far west as California, and as far north as Washington State, where I’ve stayed put longer than anywhere else. When I look at a map of the United States, touch all those big cities and little towns that I’ve spent time in, I see that I’ve been moving in a slow clockwise circle around the country. When we’re getting the place ready to open, before the first happy-hour customers come in and want to watch ESPN or CNN, Candy calls me over when Jeopardy is on; I can nail the geography questions.
My point was never to return to my starting place, New Bedford, Massachusetts. I’m like the old-time whalers, seeking my fortune far from home. Instead of the ocean, I travel along major highways. Instead of ships, I own clunkers good for only a few thousand miles. Instead of whales, I’m not sure what I’m seeking. Ahab had revenge in mind. I just haven’t found the one place that will hold me still. When I was young, I thought that there would be a man to tie me down, but it never worked out that way. And no job was ever lifelong interesting; not one has ever gotten me to sign on for the retirement plan.
You might think that having a kid would have kept me in one place, or at least slowed me down, but even that failed to root me. Every time I pulled up stakes, I told my son that no matter where we were, we were at home as long as we were together. For a long time, that was true, but then, well, it wasn’t.
So, here I am, circling back to my starting point in a direct run down Interstate 90, New Bedford–bound.
* * *
“I’d like a shower.”
“And I’d like to keep on schedule. You’ve already slowed me down with twice as many pee breaks as I take.”
“You pee in a bottle.”
Artie pulls off his greasy Tractor Supply cap and runs his fingers through his stringy hair, resettles the cap, and drags a long breath. “Five minutes, or I swear to God I’ll leave without you.”
Artie has said this before. I smile and grab my duffel bag, which nestles at my feet. It contains everything I need and nothing that I don’t. That bag and I have a longer relationship than most married couples. I pull a couple of dollars out of my back pocket and drop them on the check. “Give me seven and I’ll meet you at the truck. Go buy yourself a pack of gum.”
“Justine. I mean it. I come in late with this load and I’m fucked.”
“Then don’t hold me up talking to me.” I shoulder my duffel and stride off to the showers.
Once Artie figured out that I meant it, that I was paying him three hundred bucks to let me ride east with him, and that didn’t include any physical stuff, he’d turned sullen. It’s funny how the barroom personality can be so different from that of the real person. Mr. How’s My Girl quickly became Mr. Cranky. Tough. I’m not taking this ride for the company. I keep Mack between us, and get out of the cab while Artie catches a few hours’ sleep—walking Mack around quiet parking lots, sitting at empty picnic tables and sipping cold coffee—then unroll my sleeping bag and crawl into Artie’s man-smelly bunk to catch my own z’s. Artie doesn’t want Mack in his bed, but that’s okay. The dog curls up on my seat, his little ears twisted in my direction, so I know he’s not really sleeping. On guard. Shelties, miniature collies, are guard dogs by breeding. His instincts are to watch the hills for wolves. Artie is on notice every time Mack stares at him with his eagle eyes.
* * *
There are three shower stalls. One is broken, and the other two are in use. I should forget about it. I wash my face and brush my teeth. Whoever those two women are, they are flipping taking a long time. I floss. I wait. I know that Artie is getting pissed. Finally, the shower turns off. Now I have to wait for Miss America to dry off and get dressed. “People waiting out here!” I shove my washcloth and toothbrush back into my bag.
No answer. The second shower shuts off. The room is suddenly quiet except for the sound of towel against skin. I look at my watch. My time is done. I pick up my duffel, and, miraculously, Shower Queen exits the booth. I can do this in one minute. I can’t stand the feeling of dirty hair. I hate that I smell like day-old sweat and Artie’s cigarettes. I can get in and under and out in two minutes, tops. I won’t dry my hair.
Artie will be pissed, but I’m confident that he’ll just bitch, not leave. I strip.
Five minutes later—it can’t have been more than five minutes—I emerge from the shower room, wet towel rolled up under my arm, duffel over my shoulder, and my hair, wet and unstyled, hanging to my shoulders. I’m in the second of three T-shirts I’ve brought and the same jeans I started out with. But I feel better. I’ll finish the job in the truck, put on the mascara and finger-wave my hair.
As I promised, and only a couple of minutes late, I head out the automatic doors, making straight for the truck lot. Maybe thirty semis are lined up in rows, Roadway, Bemis, UPS, Mayflower Movers, and independents with family names on the cabs and unmarked trailers behind. Rigs with full berths above, rigs with shiny red and chrome, fancy lettering, rigs with more lights than a carnival midway. And campers. Campers snuggled up between the big guys, tagalongs and fifth wheels; double-axle motor homes. Four-wheel-drive trucks with engines that rival those powering the big rigs.
I don’t see Artie’s truck. I look to the diesel pumps and then the line for the truck wash, but he’s not there. I start to trot down the lane between trucks. His rig isn’t distinctive, a plain dull green. He’s hand-lettered his name, Arthur B. Schmidt, on the driver’s door in an uneven attempt at block letters—the Schmidt is narrower than the Arthur. He’s hauling a trailer that he was hired to haul. Nothing to distinguish it from the others. But I can’t have missed it. It’s been my home for the past two days.
“Artie, for God’s sake, stop teasing.” I say this under my breath, but the panic is rising, a sour taste in my freshly brushed mouth, the taste of trouble. I stop looking for Artie. I know that he’s gone. The mean SOB has called my bluff. He’s taken my three hundred bucks and abandoned me in Ohio.
Then it hits me, like someone has punched me in the stomach. Mack was in the cab. My dog was in the truck, where I’d left him after giving him a quick walk in the doggy rest area. He’s been waiting for us to come out and give him a little treat of Artie’s leftovers, a bowl of fresh water. I can’t believe that Artie would have driven off with him. There’s no chance Artie would keep him. He’s dumped him into the middle of this parking lot of bulls.
I call and whistle. Mack won’t know where I am, and he’ll be frantic. I am frantic as I begin to run, my wet towel lost on the pavement, my duffel banging against my back. “Mack! Mack! Come, boy. Mack!” My mouth dries out and I can’t whistle anymore.
Mack is obedient; if he hears me, he’ll come like a shot. He’s not the type of dog that would wander around; he’ll be looking for me, his nose to the ground, maybe heedless of the danger of being in this active parking lot. All of a sudden, it seems like every truck in this parking lot starts its motor in a cacophony of diesel. Mack can’t hear me over the noise; I bend to peer beneath the behemoths, looking and looking for the flash of white and gray that will be Mack. I can’t find him. I stop dead in the path of a moving truck. The driver slides a hand out his window, waving me across the lane.
Okay. If Mack isn’t here, then Artie still has him. I circle the TA building. Artie’s yanking my chain. If he’s still got Mack, then Artie hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s not going to do that. He’s got to be here. If he’s back on the road, there’s no way he’s going to turn around and come back; the time he’d lose in playing me would be too precious.
But there are no trucks on the other side of the building, just family cars, a horse trailer, and a Harley with a one-legged rider parked in a handicapped spot.
“Have you seen a dog? A Sheltie? Gray with black streaks. White ruff? One blue eye and one brown eye?” I keep talking, as if adding to the description will make the answer become yes.
The one-legged rider shakes his head, which is swathed in a filthy red bandanna. “Nope. Sorry. This is a tough place to lose a dog.” Like a lot of the rugged men I meet, he has a sympathetic voice, which does not match his tough appearance.
I collapse onto a bench in front of the building, all the strength in my legs gone, my heart thumping with a disconcerting loudness. I fight back the tears. In my experience, tears have never been useful, neither relieving pain nor offering comfort once shed. What I need is a plan. I need to stop Artie.
Artie has driven off with Mack.
* * *
Mack sleeps with his brushy tail curled up over his pointy nose. Tucked up like this, he’s a small package of dog, burrowed into the sleeping bag Justine has left unrolled on the bunk behind the driver’s seat. He’s quite pleased to wait, dozing, waking, dozing, for the people to return to the truck. There might be a taste of something good as a reward for being quiet and patient.
This mobile living is a bit boring, but he is satisfied with the almost constant presence of his Justine. Usually he has to doze, wake, doze for a long time every day until Justine comes back from her day away from him, smelling of beer and fried food. He loves that smell; once, when she took him with her to work, just to pick up her check, he immediately recognized the place as where she went during the day. The lovely odors defining her away time and making it comprehensible to him. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place that smelled like burgers?
When only Artie got back into the cab, Mack merely opened one eye. He isn’t a big fan of the guy, but that’s mostly because of the stink of his cigarettes and the fact that the man ignores him. Mack is more accustomed to having Justine’s males be friendly, sometimes even presenting offerings. Good stuff, like rawhide chews and squeaky toys. This guy just talks and smokes and, once in a while, gets too close to Justine. That’s when Mack will find a reason to squeeze himself onto Justine’s lap. No need to show teeth, just be there, a reminder that he is in charge, that she is his person.
Artie lights up another cigarette, not even rolling the window down to release the smoke. Mack tucks his nose deeper under his tail, his jack-in-the-pulpit ears turning like miniature radar detectors to catch the sound of Justine’s feet on the pavement. Artie drums on the steering wheel, fidgets with the arrangement of knickknacks on the dashboard, cranks down his window, and ejects the butt of his cigarette. “Goddamn. She’s pushin’ me.”
Mack keeps still. He wishes Artie would be quiet so that he can listen better for Justine. The dog lifts his head to sniff the air as the window goes down, but the cigarette stink is an impenetrable barrier, obscuring even the fresh air outside, and Artie’s head blocks his view. She’ll come. Justine will be back. She always comes back.
The first day that he lived with Justine, he learned that lesson. A mere baby, a pup of few weeks, he’d been taken away from his mother, his littermates, and the only human hands he’d ever known. He was boxed and carried to Justine. When she took him up and rubbed her inadequate human nose against his pointy one, he fell in love. And then she left him, putting him back in the box that would be his cave, his home, until he outgrew it. Then she came back and let him out. Fed him, cuddled him on the couch, named him. He never worried about her absence again.
Mack is startled back into full awareness as Artie hollers a stream of tongue language that Mack doesn’t recognize word for word, but he gets the meaning. The man is angry. There is no one here for him to be angry at, unless he’s angry at him, so Mack shrinks even more into the dim closet of a bunk. Suddenly, Artie starts the truck, and the rumbling vibration of the big engine fills the air. The gears grind and the truck moves forward. Justine isn’t here. Maybe Artie is going to find her. Mack’s soft whine is shadowed by the sound of the diesel engine. They pull away from the other trucks and shoot down the TA access road. In a minute, they are back on the highway. Justine is not there.
Copyright © 2012 by Susan Wilson