The Truck Stop by Trent P. McDonald
Day 18 Advent 2017
I slowly turned the dial with my right hand, keeping my left on the wheel. Nothing but static, the dial was as barren as the empty highway in front of me. The only music I had, came from the engine and tires of my old ’67 Ford, which hummed along as it had all day.
My mind was numb from that hum and my vision was getting a bit blurry. It was a quarter past three in the afternoon, yet it was already beginning to get dark. The cola I’d picked up at that last gas station was making me uncomfortable.
I thought back over the day and my food intake. A couple of bags of chips and a few candy bars. An awful truck stop coffee in the morning and that soda I had finished a half an hour earlier.
That was the problem with traveling on Christmas day, not a thing was open. Even finding an open gas station was near impossible.
Some music came out of the small speaker. I stopped turning and tried to fine tune it. It wasn’t country, which was surprising way out in the middle of nowhere. The Gordon Lightfoot song came to an end and Barry Manilow started. Not really rock, but I could listen to anything to drown out the tire hum.
I saw a sign for a rest area. At last! That soda was getting even more uncomfortable. It was pretty much empty, as expected. I could see two large semis over to one side. A brand new ’79 Lincoln pulled out as I pulled in. It reminded me that in a few more days a new decade would be starting. And what had I done with the old? I parked directly in front of the facilities.
After using the bathroom, I stood outside having a smoke. Besides needing a break and a stretch of the legs, I tried not to smoke in the car. Debby hated it. I laughed, sending smoke out of my nose. I hadn’t seen Debby in months, so why was I worried about her smelling smoke in the car?
I only had a couple of smokes left. Not much money either. My dad had given me a gas card for an emergency, and I thought I might need to use it.
I lit the next cigarette with the old. I’m not sure why. Well, I was. I didn’t want to leave because I had no place to go. I had left town when I figured nobody would be watching because I didn’t have rent money. I just got in my car and started driving, unconsciously retracing my tire prints in reverse from a few months ago.
I’ll admit that I totally freaked when Debby told me she was pregnant. I can’t be a dad! I worked at a Burger King, for Christ’s sake, and made all of two bucks and ninety freaking cents an hour. Debby did a little better, but she’d have to quit her job to have the kid. No way I could be a dad.
So I freaked.
I took all I could and headed West. Didn’t care where, I just drove. I ended up in some backwards town in Montana and got a job. Flipping burgers, of course.
And now I was doing the same. I had no clue where I was going, I was just heading East. I had seen some signs for Chicago. That sounded nice. A lot of opportunity in the big city. There really wasn’t anyplace else to go.
Home to my parents? Nah. They wouldn’t take me in, not after how I left without a word. Well, they might, but could I go crawling to them?
As I was thinking these pleasant thoughts, an old trucker came up to me.
“Hey Bud,” he said. “Can I bum a smoke?”
“Sure,” I said. I opened the pack. There were two cigarettes pointed the right way, filter up, and one upside-down. That was it. I didn’t have another pack nor money to spare to get one.
I pulled out one of the right-side up ones, since it would be bad luck to take the upside down one, and handed it to the trucker. I gave him my smoke to light his.
“Thanks,” he said as he drew in his first puff.
We smoked in silence for a while before he spoke again. “Where you headed?”
“Not sure,” I said. “East.”
He laughed. “Well, if you were headed North, South or West you picked a funny way to go about it, being here on 90 East.”
“So, going to see family on Christmas? Need to hurry, it’s getting late.”
I shook my head. “I’m alone this year. I guess always have been.”
“Yeah, me too,” the trucker said. “Been alone my whole life. Grew up alone. Never met my pa. I guess when Mom said she was pregnant, the bastard got scared and ran. Shoot, I know lack of money and all, but, damn, it was tough. We had nothing, and he didn’t have much more. But I wish I could have met him.” He drew in a deeply on his smoke.
“Yeah, I guess I’m lucky to have known my dad,” I said. I thought about the gas card in my pocket. My childhood wasn’t easy, and we didn’t have much. But he did take care of me and Mom.
“Hell, I guess I shouldn’t have brought up that ancient history,” he said. “These days my rig is my family and the open road my best friend. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“Thinking of that, I’m surprised you’re driving on Christmas,” I said. “Seems only the bigger truck stops are open today.”
He shrugged. “What else I’d be doing?”
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure. I obviously had nothing better to do, either.
I reached in my pack and grabbed the second to last cigarette and lit it off the one I was finishing. I usually don’t chain smoke, but I had only had two all day before the rest area. I wasn’t ready to get back in the car yet, and smoking gave me something to do as I stood around.
“Mind if I have another?” the stranger asked.
I looked in the pack. The lucky turned-around smoke was all alone in there; the first out was put back and so the last out. I stared at the cigarette, trying to make it multiply by thought alone. The craving just gets so bad when I don’t have one. It drives me crazy. Having one more, for when it starts was a kind of insurance policy. Even though I was chain smoking, I could feel the craving deep inside. My hand began to shake. My head felt like it was both empty, sucking in air, and a balloon about to burst. I needed that single smoke. I needed it.
“Sorry, Bud,” the trucker said. “Didn’t realize that was your last one. I’m fine. You keep it.”
Hands still shaking, I took out the lucky last smoke and handed it to him.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“You sure?” He narrowed his eyes. I nodded. “I hate to take a man’s last smoke. I can always get more later. You sure?”
“Yeah, take it. I’ve been meaning to quit forever. I don’t smoke in the car, so…” I shrugged.
“Thanks. Makes it special, don’t it?” He lit it from the old one and took a long drag off of it. “Yeah, that’s some fine, there. Extra special. Thanks, Bud.”
“Not a problem.”
“Do you know where you’ll be stopping tonight? I know it’s s only a little after Three, but it’s getting dark. You going to be traveling far? Have a place to stay?”
“Haven’t given it a thought, really,” I said. “I guess I’ll sleep in the car.”
“It gets mighty cold. My rig is warm enough when I need it, but a car? No, you need to find a place to stay. Got family anyplace close?”
“Don’t think so. Actually, I haven’t been paying attention. Where are we?” I asked.
“That big city you passed about three hours ago?”
I laughed. “Yeah, the oversized cow town.”
“Yep, if you didn’t blink you should have seen Sioux Falls. I bet you could make Milwaukie by Seven Thirty, maybe Eight if you didn’t pay attention to speed limits.”
“How did you… I mean, why would I want to go there? I was thinking Chicago is my type of town.”
He laughed and took a puff from my last cigarette.
“Chicago gets cold and lonely in the winter,” he said.
I was about to respond when I realize that the two big trucks had just pulled out. My car was the only vehicle around. Where was his rig?
“Uhm, did you miss your ride?” I asked.
“No. Did you?” He stared at me.
I shrugged my shoulders again.
“Look, Bud, you seem nice and all,” he said. “Gave a stranger your last cigarette, once you start Jonesing, might as well have given the coat off your back. But you need to get beyond yourself. I mean, is heading to Montana on the first sight of trouble really how you want to live your life? Not very responsible, if you ask me.”
“I think I do OK,” I said.
“The world don’t need no more fatherless kids, mind,” he said. I jumped. How did he know? “I was one, you know. It’s a hard life. But I make do, I make do. I have my beautiful rig and the road. My customers all know how reliable I am. I take responsibility for whatever it is I’m hauling. Whatcha hauling, Bud? Taking responsibility for it yet?” he narrowed his eyes at me again.
“Uhm, yeah.” I felt uncomfortable and needed to get away from this old trucker who didn’t have a truck and knew so much about me. “I got to go use the John. I’ll be right back.”
He laughed. I knew what he was thinking, about being uncomfortable and running and all, but I had to go, but not to the bathroom.
I stubbed out that second to last cigarette and went to the main building. I found the payphone I thought I had seen earlier and dropped in a quarter. I dialed the number without thinking.
“Hi Mom. Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Tom? Where are you? Where have you been?”
“I don’t know, I’m about half way between Sioux Falls and home, I guess.”
“You heading this way, then?” Her voice sounded dull. Did she want me home?
“Look, Mom, I have to tell you something. I knocked up Debby. When I found out, damn, don’t know what came over me. Yeah, I do. I’m sorry, I freaked and ran. But now I have decided I need to man up and take care of it. I’m heading home to find Debby and, well, if she’ll take me back, to be there for her and my child.” I think this was the first time I said “my child”. It sounded right.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
“Tommy?” she said. “We know all about it. She ran out of money and her folks wouldn’t take her back, not in her condition. Your dad asked her to stay here, feeling responsible for your stupidity. Why’d you run off?”
“She’s there? Can I talk to her?”
There was another long pause. The phone asked me to drop in more change. I didn’t have a lot left. I dropped in what I did have.
“She’s pretty hurt, but yeah, sure. Hold on,” she said.
“Debby? Oh my God, I am so sorry! I was scared. I freaked. I had no idea what to do. I was stupid and selfish. I know, selfish and childish. But I’ve thought about it. I want to come back and take care of you and the child. I mean my child. Our child. Will you let me? Please?”
“Do you promise you won’t just go all flakey again? We need a man, not some idiot who runs at the first sign of trouble.”
“I promise, a million times over, I promise. I love you…”
“I don’t know. If you were only a tenth the man your father is…”
“Please? I can grow into a man like him. Please?”
“Come back and we’ll see.”
“Thank you! I love you so much, I was just so frightened what you’d say if I ever talked to you again. I was afraid you totally hated me.”
“Who said I don’t? When you going to be home?”
“I don’t know, about three or four hours, I guess.”
“We can talk then.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
The phone asked for more money. I didn’t have any, so I said goodbye and hung up.
I went out to try to find the old trucker, let him know I made up my mind about where I was heading, but he wasn’t around.
Another big 18-wheeler pulled into the rest area and a man jumped out.
“Hey,” I said. “I was just talking to an old trucker. You seen him, or anything?”
The trucker smiled. “You must be the guy the others have been laughing about on the CB radio. Talking to old Ed, huh?”
“Old Ed?” I asked.
“Yeah. He died at this rest area about 10 years ago. Christmas day it was. He had no home or family. Not sure what they did with the body. Some truckers put a marker over there for him and as far as I know, his bones are under it. They say that sometimes he gets lonely and talks to people. If they’re mean or nasty to him, they can expect a really rough journey, but if they’re nice to him, the road ahead will be smooth. If you believe in that nonsense.”
“What would happen if I gave him my last smoke?” I asked.
The man laughed. “Hell, I guess you can expect a Christmas miracle, then. If you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long road.”
I thanked the man and he headed to the bathroom.
I noticed a faint glow were the guy pointed, and walked over and found a small stone in the field. Sitting on the stone was the butt end of that last cigarette I gave old Ed, still glowing red. I silently thanked Ed, went back and got in my car.
I eased onto the highway, 90 East, and got up to speed. I had no idea how I’d be received back home, but I knew that whatever happened, I would try my hardest to be there for Debby and the child, my child. My child! Something inside of me had changed. Going into the new decade, I’d be a new man.
I pushed the pedal a little harder and got up over the speed limit, trusting Ed and my luck. The radio came in much clearer. The sappy Middle of the Road music gave way to equally sappy Christmas songs.
I smiled and sang along. Maybe it would be a merry Christmas yet.
Trent McDonald blogs on the site Trent’s World, the blog, which is an outlet for his creative ventures, such as fiction, poetry, music, photography and other visual arts. In 2017 he released a book of short stories, Seasons of Imagination, and an urban fantasy novel, The Fireborn.