All That Road GOING
By A.G. MOJTABAI NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2008 A.G. Mojtabai
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8101-5200-7
Chapter One Door
HIS COMPANION WAS A SMOKER WITH A CRACKLING LAUGH sounding not much different from his cough. Add a beat-it was the same. Pierson found himself shrinking into his own corner; the man's legs, splayed out in a gaping V, crowded him. Not that Pierson took up all that much space-he'd always been slight, built like a sprinter, they used to say-but he'd paid in full, he was entitled to a full seat.
The man told Pierson he was a trucker deadheading from Bakersfield, California, to Joplin, Missouri. Joplin's where he set out from three days ago. Had a house in Carthage. Semidetached, but he was only a renter. "Rent goes nowhere," he was wise on that. Problem was, he still couldn't afford a mortgage on anything. "No way to live!" he said, shaking his head as if Pierson had said something to contradict him, then sighed and started in on his health. His nerves were shot, his chest rattled, even lying down. Got so bad he saw sparks when he coughed. He'd been used to driving fifteen hours at a stretch, thought nothing of it, except for his aching back. And he'd be willing to put up with all those aches and pains, all the frustrations-the chuck holes, the oil slicks, construction detours and weigh stations, the wind and the weather, the lonely nights-if only he could count on the extra cash. He was paid by the mile, but now they'd cut back on hours allowed behind the wheel and he couldn't pack in the miles, there was no extra cash. "The ICC's got all these rules and regulations tying us up in knots. Government out to get you any which way you look."
Only time he felt top of the heap was roaring down the high-way, pushing the limit. Fancy rig, a Kenworth or one of those Peterbilts, chrome stacks chugging away. Riding high in his cab, tall enough to spit on everybody else, watching the hatchbacks and compacts-piss ants, all-scoot left and right to make way for him.
"Pipes, lumber, mufflers, mushrooms to Laredo ..." He'd hauled just about everything in his time, to hear tell. "No live cattle-but tons of swinging beef. Hauled a mess of toxic hogs over the border, down to old Me-hi-co. Suppose to be burned up. I sure hope they did." Hadn't waited around to make sure.
What he liked best was zipping through Wyoming and Montana, making time, whatever speed he could handle. Summer driving, early fall, late spring-the rest of the year was hell. "You know what they say about Wyoming?"
Pierson didn't know, didn't need to-the punch line was already launched.
"That's a state where the men are men, the women are jealous, and the sheep are nervous." He paused then, waiting through Pierson's silence for any kind of ripple-none forthcoming. Finally, he said, "You probably heard that one before?"
Pierson hadn't but nodded anyway; it seemed the shortest way.
It made no difference, say or don't say; the voice beside him kept on, never resting. No participation required. Pierson tried staring out the window but found nothing to latch his eye onto. Idling fields (seen one, you've seen 'em all), telephone poles ticking past, threading mile to mile, a battered billboard, advertising SINCERE SERVICE-for what? Not a clue: the rest of the message was weathered down to bare boards.
Years back, the man said, he'd just about lived in his truck. Got in the habit of calling it his, even though he never owned it. But he'd stuck with the same company and they stuck by him, and the work was steady so he did manage to put some money by. Did most of his cooking by popping the hood and setting a can of franks and beans on the carburetor. "That was in the old days-the old trucks," which nobody wanted to go back to, but-"you can't win." He sighed again.
Pierson tried to back off in his mind, tried to picture how a stranger might see the two of them: the trucker, fortyish, in unwashed jeans and a T-shirt advertising (a joke, surely) a town called Muleshoe, Texas. Then Pierson himself (pushing seventy, though he flattered himself that he could still pass for fifty-some) in a cream-colored jacket and pale-blue shirt with fine white stripes. The jacket looked like pure linen, though linen was only a percentage of the blend; it was mostly polyester to withstand crushing. Pierson knew how to shop for things, he didn't need a woman for that. "What line of work you say you're in?" the trucker asked.
Pierson hadn't said but had no choice this time. "Sales-retired," he obliged, wasting not a syllable.
Pierson's leg was acting up again, his old charley horse, it would soon be all he could think of. Stiffening and flexing his right foot, he tried to quiet the quaking of his calf-useless-then brought his left leg down over his right, tamping it down by main force. He blinked, hard, till water sprang from the corners of his eyes. Strain as he might, his lids couldn't seem to stay pried apart, his head kept swinging, his mind winking off. He wasn't sleeping, quite, wasn't fully awake, only half dreaming. How'd they say it-"mind's eye?" Dipping and catching himself, he was whipsawed into seeing. Sharp as anything: the room, the bed, Marie's lips beaded with bubbles, voice burbling, "Wait ... wait ... wait." She was drowned but didn't know it. His gaze kept circling round and round her: door, bed, window, door, bed, doorknob, hand-his hand, the apple of the knob solid in his hand, the hallway gleaming ...
"Did I say something?" the trucker turned to Pierson, his brow creased with concern.
"No, why?" Pierson's eyes blinked open.
"Your face," he said. "The look on your face."
WHEN THE NURSE LED HIM OUT OF MARIE'S ROOM TO "HAVE a word" with him in the corridor, and the word turned out to be, "Your wife could die tonight," it didn't do a thing to change Pierson's mind. First off, Marie wasn't his wife; they'd been living together was all. Living together for how long? Twenty-some years, so happened, but since when did arithmetic have anything to do with anything?
... But suppose the nurse had said, "She's dying"-instead of "could die tonight," suppose she'd said "is" instead of "could," allowing no maybes, no wiggle room-would he do anything any different? Suppose the doctor had said, "You're trying to outrun death-it can't be done ..."
He'd still run.
Didn't matter how they said it: Pierson could see for himself what was what. He didn't need a tour to tell him what business hospice was in. But why hadn't he seen it coming?
He wasn't ready.
She was foaming when they wheeled her over the bridge from the hospital, hair foaming round her face, words sudsing from her lips-half of them lost, all meaning lost, bottled up in the mask-crazed by the drugs they were giving her and whatever she was going through. Maybe it was the panic of the mask making her wild, they wondered, and they tried switching to another device, something more open. Two little straws up her nose, all it amounted to, but Marie kept pulling the straws out, kept touching the tips to the far corners of her eyes. So, panicked or not, there'd been no help for it-it had to be the full mask.
Pierson could recognize scraps of her usual worries coming through: bills unpaid, coupons she'd squirreled away, her keys, her wallet ... Had he remembered to bring her handbag? He had. He was carrying it even as she asked, couldn't she see for herself? He lifted it, waved it inches from her face. Carrying a woman's handbag, for cripes sake! Must of looked like a fool ...
Add to that, he could swear she was singing. Something about travel. It was no song he'd ever heard. It was crazy-Marie's travels were done. This would be her last room, her final bed. A crucifix hung over the bed, a girlish figure draped upon it. Could have been sunbathing on the beach with legs so coyly dangled. Basking in pain, asking for it ... Pierson felt his anger building. Marie's voice burbled on. Made him feel near breathless himself, trapped in a singing, choking mist.
Then, his back to the bed, staring at the folded towels and bed liners stacked in readiness, as he bent to stow Marie's handbag in the cabinet under the sink, this strange thing happened. He watched his hand move like a glove or somebody else's hand, two fingers, one long, one short, springing the clasp, then the other brothers trailing after them into the depths of the bag. Five fingers capering on their own, browsing for whatever, whatever they might happen to find. Lipstick, cough drops, crumpled tissues ... pillbox, compact, change purse, keys, and wallet ... How silken smooth the leather sliding from fingers to palm. For safekeeping, he told himself, pocketing the wallet-leaving the keys behind. And, standing in the Greyhound terminal, under the double sign suspended from the ceiling-white on blue, blue on white-that said on one face ¿DÓNDE QUIERES IR? and on the other WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO? Pierson told himself he couldn't have known beforehand that, within the hour, he'd be slapping the wallet onto the ticket counter and emptying the thing, all but two dollars, to pay for a See America pass and a trip clear across the country. How could he have known? Marie was raving was all he knew, as he-Pierson-soon would be if he stuck around much longer.
The intake rigmarole had been endless, a shitload of paperwork, most of it fussing about how the medical bills would be paid. He stood by her for as long as it lasted, though; he'd signed and dated, signed and dated, yes, yes, yes, wherever the X told him to sign. He'd been nailed, over and over-wasn't that enough?
Add to driving him crazy the nurse being called away every two minutes, with Marie's talking-singing rant picking up soon as the nurse stepped out. Leaving Pierson alone to pace Marie's bedside. He'd near the door, then veer back in an ever-widening circle, the golden, gleaming doorknob the apple of his eye. He had no plan-only that image, that golden gleam. But Marie, quick as ever, was on to him: she'd start calling out his name when he got anywhere near the door. Then-other names he didn't catch. One minute, she'd be lying in her hospice bed, sick as a dog, unable to lift a foot, next-she was off to a barn dance, do-si-do, round and round, dancing with somebody called Ray, playing rummy with somebody called Cody ...
Chapter Two Pilot, Here
WE'D BEEN HAVING ONE OF THOSE CLOVER DAYS IN EARLY April, golden, glossy, everything buttered with sunshine, buds fattening, bird sounds-bright sounds-I won't say "songs," not all birds sing.
Been a lot of rain in the area. You could smell it yet: deep earth mint and dung, the air drenched with it. "A million-dollar rain," wheat farmers called it, giving guarded thanks. Another frost was still possible, though unlikely-fifteenth of the month was pretty much the deadline on that. The depot was bustling, more passengers milling around than I'd seen in months-Christmas and New Year's excepted. People cooped up all winter long, itching to be up, out, and moving on. Personally, I've never shared that itch. Couldn't think of anything better than staying home, staying put. Just my personal opinion.
I was thinking of my lawn, only now starting to repay long hours of tending. I'd planted fescue and the green was crowding up, overtaking the old straws of Bermuda. Already my pear trees were going from bloom to leaf. Might even have a little fruit this year, but I wasn't counting on it. All I really wanted was to feast my eyes on that new green-looking forward to my three days off next week, a chance to weed a little, and then just to set on the porch enjoying the view, not lifting a finger, watching my teenagers take on the mowing. That's a sight I really do relish!
Should have known some clouds would be waiting in the wings. By the time my bus came in, we were already twenty minutes behind schedule. Top of that, it was a great piece of junk they'd handed me: 8213. I recognized the old girl right off the bat-I'd driven this beauty before. She'd been around: had a permanent sway to the right, a kink in the steering wheel, and an off-again, on-again heating system. I reminded the dispatcher of these facts. He shrugged, promising better luck next time. The bus that should have been mine was running second section on the Albuquerque to L.A. schedule; there'd been an overflow crowd for that particular run. Nothing I could do but sound off, then forget it. I could only count on about an hour of daylight-hour and a half at best-before full dark. The dispatcher wished me "Happy trails!" and left me to it.
So I went about my business, double-checking the control panel: oil gauge, gas, turn signals, wipers, lights, adjusting the side views, the rearview passenger mirror, then stepping out to bump the tires and oversee the baggage loading in progress-really, to josh a minute with Mike and Ray, the guys handling it. And finally, to have a glance at the new boarders lining up at gate 3. My eye made a quick tally: sixteen, there'd be enough-barely enough-seats for everyone this leg of the road but no guarantees after that. Unless most of these were short run-which would ease things. I'd have to warn them about not spreading out all over the place.
I slid my name card into the holder. That's the regulation, standard operating procedure, not worth mentioning but for the fact that letting people know your name is one of those details a bunch of drivers I know prefer to forget nowadays. I understand their way of thinking: time like ours, you never know who's going to be suing you for what. It's a real concern. But I-call it foolish if you like-still think that meeting people name to name, face to face, is what it's all about.
So, anyway, I gave them my name: O. M. Plumlee. O stands for Orville. Kind of old-fashioned-my mother was thinking of the Wright brothers at the time. M is the letter I go by: for Matt, short for Matthew. But, speaking professionally, I don't think a little formality is a bad thing. Any complaints? O. M. Plumlee's the name. Got a word of praise? Same name. O. M. Plumlee-pilot, here.
My habit is to size up my passengers right away. Going by the tally handed me, there were twenty-nine continuing on from points west. Those few traveling all the way, coast to coast, met my stare with glazed eyes. By now they'd seen a number of drivers come and go. Starting my shift in Oklahoma City, I was one of the middle ones in the lineup-but, at this point, I guess we all looked the same to them.
Some of the passengers stood out from the first. Like this black couple up near the front-pleasing smiles, well spoken. Extra friendly, could not be nicer-toting a baby too young to travel. The baby was starting to squirm, only letting off a little steam as yet, but I expected we'd be hearing from her-and plenty-in the future.
One young lady used the opportunity to press me on when exactly we'd be arriving in St. Louis. I had to admit we were running a bit behind schedule but I'd do my best to make up the time. Good-looking gal: curly headed, ringlets all over, with long black lashes, gold hoops in her ears, so I added, "Just for you," and smiled.
"It's real important," she said. She was too young to look serious without frowning. "It's my first wedding anniversary. Tomorrow is one week to the day!" I offered my congratulations.
"We're Roberta and Robert Wright," she wanted me to know, "R and R, for short."
"Sounds like you're custom cut for each other," I said. I made some mention of her ticket being a reissue, not the original. Big mistake, as it turned out, enough to get her started, spilling out all her business: how they'd had their first big blowup and she'd split, bought herself a one-way to California, but only made it as far as Tucson, where she'd been paged by you'd-never-guess-who.
"Must've wanted you back," I handed the ticket over.
"I know it. He'll be waiting for me in St. Louis ..."
Excerpted from All That Road GOING by A.G. MOJTABAI
Copyright © 2008 by A.G. Mojtabai. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.